By Tom Strode, Baptist Press
WASHINGTON (BP)– Christians and other teachers in public schools, as well as the school-choice movement, stand to benefit from the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision June 27 that public-sector unions may not require fees from nonmembers, supporters of the ruling say.
In a 5-4 opinion, the high court ruled against such mandates by government and public-sector unions and overturned a 41-year-old Supreme Court decision in the process. The justices decided such a requirement on workers who refuse to join the union is a violation of free-speech protections in the First Amendment.
“States and public-sector unions may no longer extract agency fees from nonconsenting employees,” Associate Justice Samuel Alito wrote in the court’s opinion.
A union procedure that automatically deducts fees from a nonmember’s wages “violates the First Amendment and cannot continue,” he said. “Neither an agency fee nor any other payment to the union may be deducted from a nonmember’s wages, nor may any other attempt be made to collect such a payment, unless the employee affirmatively consents to pay.”
The ruling offers important implications for Christians and other teachers with faith convictions, according to the Christian Educators Association International (CEAI).
“For years many teachers, including me, have been legally required to financially support unions as a condition of their employment, knowing that their money was going to Planned Parenthood or similar causes — no more,” said David Schmus, CEAI’s executive director and a former California public school teacher, in a written statement.
Teachers’ unions are likely to lose both members and money as a result of the opinion, and their ability to oppose school-choice initiatives will probably decline, according to an analysis published by National Public Radio (NPR).
“The unions have long pushed back against any sort of school choice efforts, even charter schools,” Lindsey Burke of The Heritage Foundation told NPR. “Unions are going to have fewer dollars to push back against long-overdue education reforms. They’ll have to make some tough decisions.”
The ruling is a huge victory for the “individual rights of teachers” and a loss for unions that want to “garnish their wages to fund activities they disagree with,” said Burke, director of Heritage’s Center for Education Policy.
Union leaders, meanwhile, sharply criticized the high court’s decision.
“Today’s radical decision by the Supreme Court is a blatant slap in the face for educators, nurses, firefighters, police officers and all public servants who make our communities strong and safe,” said Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the National Education Association, which describes itself as the country’s “largest professional employee organization.”
In the majority opinion, Alito said a 1977 Supreme Court opinion — Abood v. Detroit Board of Education — that permitted public-sector unions to collect what are known as “agency fees” from nonmembers should no longer be followed. “Agency fees” are a portion of the union’s full dues that are to support activities related to collective-bargaining costs but not those for political or ideological enterprises, according to the court’s decision.
“[V]ery strong reasons” existed in the current case for overturning the high court’s precedent, he wrote. “Fundamental free speech rights are at stake. Abood was poorly reasoned. It has led to practical problems and abuse. It is inconsistent with other First Amendment cases and has been undermined by more recent decisions.”
In the case before the Supreme Court, the “agency fees” amounted to 78 percent of the full union dues, Alito wrote. With these fees, nonmembers were required to pay for such activities as “[l]obbying,” “advertising,” “litigation” and other “services,” he said.
“We conclude that this arrangement violates the free speech rights of nonmembers by compelling them to subsidize private speech on matters of substantial public concern,” Alito wrote in a 49-page opinion.
“It is hard to estimate how many billions of dollars have been taken from nonmembers and transferred to public-sector unions in violation of the First Amendment,” he said. “Those unconstitutional exactions cannot be allowed to continue indefinitely.”
Joining Alito in the court’s decision were Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justices Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch. Kennedy announced his retirement in a letter to President Trump today, it was reported after release of the opinion.
Associate Justice Elena Kagan wrote a dissent, saying there “are no special justifications for reversing Abood” and the ruling “will have large-scale consequences.”
“[Abood] has proved workable,” she wrote. “And it is deeply entrenched, in both the law and the real world. More than 20 States have statutory schemes built on [Abood].”
A federal judge and the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago both deferred to the Abood precedent in dismissing the complaint against Illinois.
The Supreme Court appeared on the verge of overturning Abood in 2016 when a case out of California that involved CEAI and 10 California teachers reached the justices. Associate Justice Antonin Scalia passed away during the term, however, and the court deadlocked in a 4-4 decision, thereby affirming a lower-court opinion in favor of the California Teachers Association.
“Justice delayed was not justice denied for our teachers, who are now free to direct their hard-earned pay according to the dictates of conscience,” Schmus said.
The high court’s June 27 opinion came in Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.