UAW Accused of Failing to Accommodate Religion

By Cheryl K. Chumley | July 7, 2008 | 8:26 PM EDT

( - An Indiana man is suing one of the largest unions in the nation for allegedly violating his civil rights by not letting him divert part of his union dues away from organizations supporting positions that violate his religious beliefs.

The action against the United Auto Workers followed efforts by the unidentified union member to abstain from paying dues for political purposes after he claimed a religious exemption.

The union member objected to his dues being used in support of political candidates who deviate from Christian biblical teachings, specifically those regarding partial birth abortion and promoting homosexuality in public schools.

The Pacific Justice Institute, a nonprofit legal organization based in California, filed the lawsuit earlier this month on behalf of the union member in order to stop what it called "the massive religious intolerance being exhibited in unions across the country," according to the group's Internet website.

UAW spokespeople could not be reached for comment, but PJI President Brad Dacus said in a statement that his agency expected to prevail in court, based on worker rights outlined in the Civil Rights Act of 1974.

That act, according to the PJI, gives union members the right to ask the union to accommodate their "sincerely held religious beliefs," by diverting their dues from certain political campaigns to charities or nonprofit ministries.

The case came to a head in early September, when one union employee became so frustrated with the denial of his federally guaranteed right that he took his complaint to the PJI in order to battle the union in court.

"The United Auto Workers union has big legal guns and unlimited resources to fight this case," said Dacus. "This is the case we have been waiting for ... [and] when we prevail, this case will establish a new precedent which will potentially liberate millions from having to compromise their convictions in supporting their union."

The institute is also encouraging other dues-paying union members to consider similar action. A sample letter posted on the PJI Internet site gives guidance to union members on writing to their union representatives asking that they be refunded any portion of their dues that were used for purposes other than collective bargaining or administrative expenses.

Should the union member prevail, Democrats are expected to feel the biggest impact from this case. More than 90 percent of all union contributions are estimated to end up in the campaign war chests of Democratic candidates and campaign committees.

In the current election cycle, for example, labor organizations have donated $43,062,318 to Democrats versus $3,137,745 to Republicans, according to Sept. 8 Federal Election Commission data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. What portion of those contributions stemmed from union dues was not reported.

The UAW, however, indicates their dues are divided three ways: 38 percent "stays in the local union," according to an Internet posting, while 32 percent is diverted into the international union's general fund and 30 percent, to the strike insurance funds.

Regardless of the UAW's claims, word of the Indiana case has spread to such extent that Dacus' organization has fielded hundreds of inquiries the past two weeks from "disgruntled union members ... wishing to stand up to their union," according to PJI.

"We are overwhelmed with the number of calls and email requests we have received," Dacus said. "We have received more calls in the last two weeks on this matter than we have over the last six months ... [and] we are extremely optimistic because of this recent momentous progression for religious civil liberties."