NEA Under Fire for 'Stonewalling' About Religious Rights

July 7, 2008 - 8:02 PM

( - The National Education Association and two Ohio teachers' unions have come under fire from a federal agency for "stonewalling" when it comes to allowing members to uphold their religious beliefs, the attorney for the original case plaintiff said.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, responding to complaints from the National Right to Work Foundation, has determined that officials with the NEA, the Huber Heights Education Association, and the Ohio Education Association need to change the methods by which they require union members to divert their fees to charities.

NEA spokesman Michael Pons said he was unaware of the specifics of the EEOC determination, as were attorneys within his agency. Pons said that he could only comment in a generalized way on the matter. He said the unions do recognize the rights of their members to object to their fees supporting political candidates based on religious reasons, and he said, "We have established procedures to determine if those claims are legitimate."

The EEOC case stems from a complaint from Ohio teacher Dennis Robey, who claimed his union set up roadblocks this year after he again attempted to exercise his federally guaranteed religious rights and allot his fees for charitable rather than political purposes.

Since 1995, Robey had been diverting his union fees to charity organizations because he believed his funds should not be used in support of candidates who advocated abortion and homosexuality, a statement from the National Right to Work Foundation read.

Robey was informed earlier this year by the unions, however, that he would now be required to submit such an exemption claim annually and include such specifics as church affiliation and pastor confirmation of attendance and belief, according to his lawyer, Foundation staff attorney Bruce Cameron.

"[The unions] send out these obnoxious letters to religious objectors. They try to mislead employees in letters; they try to create confusion; they try to delay, (and) they try to make problems for religious objectors," Cameron said. He added that federal law allows such religious-minded union members as Robey to divert their yearly fees to charitable organizations by submission of a single, general statement explaining the conflict of political support with religious belief.

"Federal law is very clear," Cameron continued. "You do not even have to be a member of any church to object [to divert union fees to charitable organizations]. This is nothing but a simple attempt to stonewall these people, these religious objectors. These guys were just (flouting) the law."

The EEOC, finding in favor of Robey, issued a "determination" on September 25 stipulating, "There is reason to believe that a violation has occurred" on the parts of the unions.

Cleveland EEOC District Director Michael C. Fetzer wrote in a letter to the NEA and to Robey, "The amount of time it took" for the unions to abide by the requests of "religious objectors was unreasonable. I have determined that the unnecessary delay in accommodating [Robey] and other religious objectors violates" Title VII federal civil rights laws.

The case is now in the "conciliatory" stage while the EEOC waits for parties on both sides to reach a "just resolution," Fetzer wrote.

But Cameron isn't holding his breath. The case is more likely to culminate in federal court, he said.

"The EEOC [has said] we found the good guy, we found the bad guy, now we're going to sit down and try to solve it," Cameron said. "They're [now] in the conciliatory phase, where the union has the chance" to change policy and halt further pursuit of the case.

"If they don't change, the EEOC can file their own lawsuit in federal court ... or they can issue a right to sue letter," giving Robey the right to pursue the case at his own expense, Cameron continued. "I predict we're going to be in federal court over this, though."