By Michael D. Peabody, Esq.

So what's the biggest threat to religious liberty? According to J. Brent Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, the answer is found in the strings attached to government funding of religious activity.  Earlier this month, during a speech for the Jewish Anti-Defamation League, Walker said, "What the government funds, it always regulates. Government-sponsored religion is always bad for religion. How can we raise a prophetic fist with one hand and take government money with the other?"

The truth of Walker's statement was underscored just last week when the Washington State House of Representatives passed HB 1329, now working its way through the state Senate, that cleared the way for unionization of private and most non-profit child care centers if they take government subsidies for as little as one child, and even declares the centers' employees "government employees" for the purposes of unionization.

In fact, HB 1329 openly declares that "child care center directors" and "workers" are "public employees" for the purposes of collective bargaining, if at least one child attending the center received government subsidies.  It further declared that "solely for the purposes of collective bargaining, the Governor is the public employer.'"

There is an exemption for large non-profits with more than 200 regional affiliates or that send more than $3,000,000 in "membership dues" to a national organization.  The term "regional affiliates" is not defined although it is believed to primarily be aimed at large organizations such as the YWCA.  Large churches might be able to escape through this loophole if they can claim that the local congregations count toward the total of "regional affiliates" and that money sent to the national organization counts toward membership dues, but that will not be an easy argument for most churches that happen to run child care centers to win.

The House analysis claims that the bill would allow private child care centers to continue to have the right to "chose, direct, and terminate" child care workers. However this is boilerplate language for most contracts between employers and employees and it is easy to foresee scenarios in which religious child care organizations would be required to work their way through the union grievance process and defend their religiously-based decisions to a non-religious entity.  How can a religious child care center fulfill its faith-based mission when it has to answer to a secular labor union?

At a time when child care is expensive and parents are having to work longer hours to make ends meet, religious child care centers that have accepted subsidized children are in a particularly precarious position.  Local child care centers are generally small, mission-focused organizations with little money to defend themselves at the legislature. Sponsors of HB 1329, including the labor unions, are banking on this government dependence to generate pressure to dive into the non-profit sector and take over religious employers.  In this case, the labor unions are on the verge of taking over an entire industry.

There are Federal laws which might pre-empt this legislation, or as an alternative, a basis for non-profit exclusion, as well as U.S. Constitutional considerations, but it could be years before these issues could be sorted out by the courts.  In the meantime, if HB 1329 passes in its current form, and barring any court orders stopping it from going into effect, religious child care centers might either have to accept unionization or close their doors.

While there are many good reasons why government funding is necessary, and it is not at all certain that HB 1329 will become law, I would not be surprised to see similar legislation cropping up in more states as labor unions take advantage of government strings to try to control the elusive non-profit sector.

More on government funding to come in a future newsletter.

For more information about HB 1329:

 

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