BY ROBERT SWIFT
HARRISBURG BUREAU CHIEF
Published: Tuesday, August 19, 2008
HARRISBURG — The showdown over a union for teachers in the Diocese of Scranton shifted Monday to a Capitol hearing room.
A bill giving lay teachers and employees of private religious schools the right to join collective bargaining units was debated for five hours at a House Labor Relations Committee hearing.
Rep. Eddie Day Pashinski, D-121, introduced the measure several months ago as members of the Scranton Diocese Association of Catholic Teachers picketed and staged work stoppages to protest a diocese decision not to recognize them as a collective bargaining unit.
The labor dispute came after the restructuring process in 2006-07 that reduced the number of schools in the Diocese of Scranton. The diocese announced last January it would not recognize the diocese association and announced instead the formation of employee relations councils.
Mr. Pashinski’s bill would allow lay teachers and employees at religious schools to decide by a majority vote in a secret ballot if they want to be represented by a union. Unions in religious schools could bring grievances to the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board under the bill. The board would be prohibited from issuing decisions that define or interpret a religious school’s doctrine or change a religious school’s organizational structure.
Mr. Pashinski told panel members he hopes to strike a balance between employee rights and the protection of religious doctrines through the legislation.
Representatives of both sides in the Scranton education dispute — the teachers association and top diocesan officials — staked out opposing positions on the legislation.
Key themes in the testimony involve extending the constitutional right of assembly to religious school teachers, carrying out the mission of Catholic education and maintaining separation between church and state.
In his testimony, Michael Milz, the diocese association president, said enactment of the legislation will give association members access to the right of association and freedom of speech.
“We ask for the same rights as all workers, nothing more and nothing less,” he added. “We ask for your relief.”
Diocesan officials cited the need to protect the identity of Catholic schools as one reason for their opposition to the bill.
The bill is unnecessary and dangerous, said Mary Tigue, assistant superintendent of schools.
“When you insert yourself into the life of a Catholic school as this legislation does, it is going to cause problems,” she added.
Several members of the evangelical community spoke against the legislation as well. They said it’s difficult to draw a distinction as the bill does between church officials and lay teachers at many private religious schools.
The bill will harm the wall of separation between church and state and undercut the authority of church schools, said Gregory Reed, who described himself as a lay person in an evangelical community in Snyder County.
The committee will hold additional hearings on the bill in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.
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