Yesterday’s New York Times featured a blood-curdling account of the lack of protection enjoyed by employees of religious charities. Unlike other Americans, those employees can be fired for getting sick or trying to form a union, because neither the Americans with Disabilities Act not the National Labor Relations Act applies to their employers. They can be deprived of their retirement benefits with no remedy: church-related institutions are exempt from the provisions of Erisa, which regulates employee retirement plans, and from participation in the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, which assures that employers can’t use their employees’ pension plans to play the stock market. The hell with euphemisms: religious institutions are permitted to steal from their employees.
This is bad enough when applied to members of religious orders. (The Times article, with its lead about the nun dismissed for having breast cancer, causes us to wonder whether women are disproportionately affected by exempting religious employers from operating in the most basic good faith; but then we remember that it doesn’t matter, because the equal opportunity laws don’t apply either). There are reasonable arguments to be made for keeping the courts out of the business of second-guessing decisions made in the ordinary course of church governance. But when applied to such apparently secular employees as writers for the Christian Science Monitor, or janitors in parochial schools, the lack of any workplace protections–from hazardous working conditions, from mandatory overtime, from below-minimum wages–seems, well, ungodly.