MANHATTAN, January 12, 2011 (LifeSiteNews.com) – A federal agency has told a New York Catholic college that it has distanced itself too far from the authority and teaching of the Catholic Church to merit government recognition as a sectarian institution - a development Catholic education watchdogs are using as a warning to other secularized Catholic institutions.

On Tuesday, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that Manhattan College could not prevent faculty from unionizing on the basis that it is a religious institution.  Despite acknowledging that the college is recognized as Catholic by the New York Archdiocese, the NLRB wrote that it reviewed college statements and course content, and found “that the purpose of the College is secular and not the ‘propagation of a religious faith’.”

The office listed several examples from the school’s own governance, faculty, coursework requirements, and literature to prove its lack of a meaningful relationship with the Catholic Church. These included the diminishing number of leadership roles filled by the De La Salle Christian Brothers, and the school’s emphasis on “academic freedom and diversity” and “institutional autonomy,” which Manhattan College called “[requisite] for its effective functioning and the achievement of its Mission.”

“The College brochure for prospective students that includes the application for admission ... makes certain references to St. John Baptist de La Salle, but does not include any reference to the Catholic Church or Catholicism,” NLRB pointed out. The school’s own Trustees Report noted that by the 1960s, the board had successfully “eliminated any structures of control by authorities of the Church or the Institute [of the Brothers].”

The opinion also quotes Religious Studies faculty member Dr. Joseph Fahey, who contrasted the school’s objective approach to Catholic studies with its theology courses in the 60s, at which time the “primary purpose of the college” was “to indoctrinate students into the Catholic faith and to proselytize students.” 

Immediately following the ruling, The Cardinal Newman Society published an analysis from a top legal expert advising Catholic college leaders on ways to protect their religious freedoms by maintaining a strong Catholic identity.

“Federal and state laws are increasingly being used to coerce religious institutions into actions and commitments that violate deeply held religious convictions and moral principles,” warns Kevin Theriot, Senior Counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund, in that analysis.

Theriot suggests ways Catholic educators can defend their exemptions from laws that require health insurance coverage for contraception or employee benefits for same-sex couples.

“Any available exemptions for religious institutions will not apply if a college that was founded as a religious institution has become largely secular,” Theriot cautions. “It is therefore vital that Catholic colleges and universities maintain their Catholic identity in all of their programs in order to best protect their religious character and mission.”

“For decades since the infamous Land O’Lakes declaration, too many Catholic colleges and universities have straddled the line between Catholic and secular,” said Patrick J. Reilly, President of The Cardinal Newman Society (CNS). “While the Vatican and bishops have patiently encouraged the renewal of Catholic identity, state and federal regulators are increasingly demanding that Catholic colleges justify their claims to be religious.  For all but a handful of faithful Catholic colleges, this is a difficult if not impossible task.”

The new information comes, CNS points out, at a time when the federal government has become increasingly antagonistic even to faithful Catholic institutions. In August 2009, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) accused Belmont Abbey College of discriminating against female employees by not covering contraceptives in its health insurance plan. The school argues that Catholicism regards contraception as a grave evil.

In November 2010, CNS hosted a closed-door meeting with bishops and presidents of faithful Catholic colleges to discuss ways to defend the religious liberty of Catholic institutions of higher education. 

At the meeting and in The Cardinal Newman Society paper released today, Theriot identified ten factors that federal courts may consider when determining whether a school is exempt from certain laws as a religious organization. Several of the same factors were used by the NLRB in its ruling against Manhattan College.

Theirot pointed out that the Catholic Church’s own Canon Law and the document Ex Corde Ecclesiae, clearly define what it means to be a Catholic institution. “It should be noted,” he said, “that a college that does not faithfully adhere to and apply the Catholic Church’s own law might find it difficult if not impossible to convince a secular court that it is a Catholic institution deserving protection.”