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God & Unions Not Incompatible (December 16, 1998)

In a major ruling on employees first amendment and labor rights, the National Labor Relations board last week rejected a bid by the 7th Day Adventist Church for a religious exemption to prevent registered nurses in a Ukiah hospital from exercising their rights to a join a union.

The Adventists argued that unions are against their religious beliefs: Only God is allowed to give instructions to their employees — as interpreted by the Adventists’ management of course. 

“The Board sent a clear message today. You can’t invoke the name of God to deny people justice,” said Rose Ann DeMoro, executive director of the California Nurses Association, which is seeking to represent the RNs at Ukiah Valley Medical Center.

In September a large majority of the nurses at UVMC signed cards asking for representation by the CNA, California’s largest organization of registered nurses. In October, the Adventist Health chain, which owns UVMC, sought to block an election on religious grounds.

In his 31-page ruling issued December 8, Robert Miller, regional director of the San Francisco office of the NLRB, rejected the Adventist claims of exemption, and its efforts to delay an election by asking that the issue be transferred to the NLRB in Washington. 

CNA said last week that it will immediately move to complete hearings on other issues so that a date can be set for secret ballot representation election for the 170 Ukiah nurses. 

“I am ecstatic,” said Loretta Hoffman, RN, a critical care nurse in Ukiah. “Let’s hope the hospital will now drop their campaign of delays and allow us to have a democratic election so that we can have a greater voice and representation to assure the highest quality of care for our patients.” 

Unfortunately, though, the Adventists have declared that they will continue to appeal the decision through the NLRB process and probably the courts.

At the centerpiece of the NLRB’s decision are three key findings: 1. Adventist Health is a major commercial operation in the health care industry, and owns the only hospital in Ukiah. “As a practical matter,” he noted, Adventist “provides health care services similar to those provided by any other acute care hospital.” 2. Adventist Health’s religious rights do not take precedence over the constitutionally protected rights of the RNs, most of whom are not Adventist church members, and who “are not involved in teaching the tenets of the Employer’s religion to patients, but, rather in the provision of nursing services to patients within the Employer’s facility.” 3. The NLRB’s taking jurisdiction over an Adventist hospital is consistent with the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Act (RFRA) of 1993. 

Miller noted that Adventist Health is a major commercial enterprise with 19 hospitals in four Western states with over 275 assorted health care business partnerships, joint ventures, and other business activities, has thousands of employees, and generates some $1 billion in annual revenues. In sum, the Church “operates a substantial network in the health care industry and in doing so impacts many employees as well as the general public which utilizes its services.”

To grant an exemption to such a massive operation, Miller declared, “would potentially impact a significant segment of the workforce in the healthcare industry.” Against Adventist Health’s request for a religious exemption, “we must balance the First Amendment rights of employees (who are not members of the employer’s church) to associate with other employees in organizing a union for collective bargaining purposes.”

As few as 20 of the 170 RNs at Ukiah are Adventist Church members. Miller cites Adventist documents and notes that the RNs are not required to “be members of the Church or to be inculcated into that religion” nor to “indoctrinate patients into the Seventh-day Adventist religion or to disseminate religious materials.”

Bylaws for the nursing staff simply state that the role of the professional RN is to “assume accountability for the delivery of nursing care within the institution.” The document, Miller notes, “does not describe any specific religious purpose or function that is to be carried out by the registered nurses nor does it state that nurses are evaluated based on a duty to carry out any religious functions.”

Adventist Health had sought to use RFRA to supersede several decades of NRLB and Supreme Court rulings applying federal labor law to religious institutions that operate hospitals, including the Adventists.

In commenting on RFRA, Miller reviewed numerous Court and Board decisions which he said demonstrated clearly that the “legislative history (of the National Labor Relations Act) does not support the granting of the individualized exemption requested by the employer.”

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