Adjunct faculty at Pittsburgh’s Duquesne University planned to hold an election this week to decide whether or not to unionize. The university is now trying to prevent the election, despite an apparent earlier promise not to interfere. The school argues that somehow its Catholic affiliation means employees can’t form a union.

According to an article by Kaustuv Basu in Inside Higher Ed:

The action, which surprised adjuncts and United Steelworkers officials who are helping the organizing effort, came after the university agreed to an election to decide whether about 100 adjuncts at the university’s McAnulty College and Graduate School of Liberal Arts would unionize. A union official said that it would likely file a brief today to contest the university’s assertion, but it was unclear if and when the election would happen.

According to documents filed with the board, the university wants to withdraw from the election because Duquesne is a “church-operated school” as defined in a previous Supreme Court case and the National Labor Relations Board has no jurisdiction over it.

On Friday Duquesne administrators filed a motion with the NLRB. The school argues that NLRB has no jurisdiction over the university because it is Catholic

The Supreme Court case in question is 1979’s National Labor Relations Board v. Catholic Bishop of Chicago, which held that “NLRB cannot exercise jurisdiction over parochial schools that are focused on the propagation of religious faith because doing so would cause it to run afoul of the First Amendment’s clauses barring the government from establishing religion or prohibiting its free exercise.”

But there’s no general principle here and it’s only institutions that are of a “substantial religious character” that are protected from NLRB efforts. The court apparently determines this on a case by case basis.

The school says that it’s really important for Duquesne to continue to prevent employees from enjoying bargaining rights because the school is just so Catholic:

“Our Catholic identity is at the core of who we are and everything we do as an institution,” said Bridget Fare, university spokesperson. “Our mission statement proclaims that Duquesne serves God by serving students. Those words are lived out every day on our campus in very real ways in every part of the university.”

Apparently employing temporary staff on a contract-by-contract basis, and not providing them with health care or other employment benefits, that’s totally part of “serving God by serving students.”

Duquesne signed an agreement to follow all NLRB rules earlier in the year. Honoring an agreement is another pretty basic Christian moral teaching.

UPDATE: The National Labor Relations Board denied the school a religious exemption.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer