Diversité is a word high school French teacher Linda Misja knows well. Hanging in her Pennsylvania public school classroom is a poster that reads: “Everyone is different. Respect the differences.” Sadly, leaders of the state’s largest teachers union aren’t kindred spirits. They’re holding hostage $2,000 of Misja’s pay until she agrees to send the money to a charity they choose rather than one she believes in.
Misja, a Catholic, is a former instructor for home-bound teens. She volunteered to help young mothers make up classes missed due to pregnancy, enabling them to graduate high school. Now, she wants to fund a charity that cares for teenage mothers in a pro-life environment. But teachers union officials said no. Rather than back down, Misja took her union to federal court in a landmark lawsuit filed in June.
So, how can a union control how a teacher donates her own money -- a right seemingly guaranteed by the First Amendment?
Pennsylvania is one of 25 forced-union states where teachers and other public-sector workers who opt out of union membership can be required to pay the union a “fair share” fee. But because some of the Pennsylvania State Education Association’s stances, particularly on abortion, violate her deeply held religious convictions, Misja went a step further and objected on religious grounds to financially supporting the union in any way.
State law allows religious objectors to donate money equivalent to the “fair share” fee to a nonreligious charity rather than to the union. But in practice, the provision is ripe for abuse. Three years after Misja became a religious objector, her money remains in union leaders’ hands.
The union refused to allow Misja to donate to the pro-life charity she chose because it would, in its words, “further [her] religious beliefs.” In keeping with the union’s pro-choice stances, it instead insisted on a pregnancy center that counsels women on “all options.” The National Education Association, PSEA’s parent union, has even donated teachers’ union dues directly to Planned Parenthood, the nation’s largest abortion provider.
Hoping to defuse a growing conflict, Misja chose a second charity, a reputable non-profit teaching gun safety. The union rejected her choice again, deeming it too “political” due to its connection to the National Rifle Association. Neither reason for denial has any basis in the law.
Meanwhile, the union offered Misja a list of pre-approved charities -- charities which collectively spent $27 million on political activity and lobbying and two of which donate directly to Planned Parenthood. Clearly, this isn’t about being too political. It’s about union officials advancing their own political agenda on the backs of those who want nothing to do with it.
That’s an affront to Misja’s personal beliefs, her professional freedom, and her constitutional rights. Ironically, the PSEA agrees -- at least rhetorically.
The union’s own resolutions state: “The Association reaffirms the constitutional right and obligation of all education employees . . . to participate in all aspects of the democratic political process and encourages all education employees, to actively do so. The Association must resist any efforts to deny or suppress the exercise of those rights.”
Contradicting its stated principles, the union has kept more than $2,000 from Misja’s paycheck in escrow rather than allowing it to support young mothers struggling in school or fund life-saving firearms safety classes.
A ruling in Misja’s favor could impact how teachers and other public employees who object to unions on religious grounds are treated across the country. At least 10 other states have religious objector laws similar to Pennsylvania’s.
For far too long, teachers’ unions have cloaked themselves in the mantle of protecting educators, but behind the rhetoric is a culture of coercion that demands and enforces conformity. Linda Misja teaches her students to respect ideas different from their own -- surely she should expect the same treatment from those claiming to represent her.
David R. Osborne is general counsel of the Fairness Center, a nonprofit, public interest law firm offering free legal services to those facing unjust treatment from public employee union leaders.