A recent Christian Century article raises a pressing topic for church-related higher education. Manhattan College, a Catholic school in New York, has become the center for a controversial decision by the National Labor Relations Board. The presenting issue has to do with whether part-time faculty can unionize (a very important matter), but, in the explanation of the ruling the NLRB has forced the question of what identifies a church-related college. As the Century article says in the first paragraph: “The [NLRB] isn’t convinced that the Catholic school is actually Catholic.”
The school apparently had used the argument of religious liberty as a way of defending their wish to avoid permitting part-time faculty to unionize. But in the ruling, the Board argued that “federal oversight would not compromise the school’s religious freedom because its ‘stated purpose does not involve the propagation of a religious faith, teachers are not required to adhere to or promote religious tenets, [and] a religious order does not exercise control over hiring, firing, or day-to-day operations.'”
By this definition, Southern Methodist University, where I work as Chaplain, would also not qualify as a school with a religious mission. Yet, I just gave a talk here on campus that emphasized the very point that this regional NLRB’s definition seems not to allow: the importance of integrating faith with the academic mission, while protecting academic freedom and individual prerogative to express a particular faith, or to forego expression of any particular religious tradition.
So, we face at least two challenges. First, if the Century article’s description is accurate, then the NLRB has used a far too narrow definition of what a religiously-affiliated school must do to “prove” that it is in fact religiously-affiliated. There is much more to the vision of a faith-driven and high-quality college education than “propagation of the faith” and requiring professors to adhere to said faith (these criteria were in their definition). A school like SMU can be actively engaged in realizing a vision of our academic mission on the basis of the robust practice of the Christian faith (since SMU is connected to a Protestant Christian denomination) that nonetheless does not set up control conditions like the ones the NLRB is demanding.
The second challenge is how to come up with a definition that works well for all considered. More importantly, who gets to participate in such a definition? Must a government agency do this work without any input from religious groups? Of course not. Agreed, the principle of separation of church and state must be upheld, but to what degree and in what manner? Who is responsible (therefore has authority) to monitor the definitional boundaries here?
A slightly more than one page article in a magazine obviously has limitations with regard to exploring such difficult questions. Still, I do not see anyone questioning the assumptions about how a word (or a school) is defined and identified. It’s time to question these assumptions.