Two recent legal cases in California are testing the extent to which religious hospitals are subject to civil laws.
In one case, a Roman Catholic hospital defended an exemption for religious organizations written into state civil-rights law. In the other case, officials of a Seventh-day Adventist hospital are claiming their facility is not subject to the National Labor Relations Act, because healthcare is an intrinsic ministry of the church, and religious bodies are exempt from the act.
Both cases deeply trouble employee activists.
On Nov. 9, the California Supreme Court refused to let an African-American nurse sue Mercy Healthcare Sacramento for race discrimination. Nurse June McKeon claimed she was illegally passed over for a promotion at 365-bed Mercy General Hospital in Sacramento, part of the seven-hospital Mercy Healthcare Sacramento division of Catholic Healthcare West.
Federal discrimination law is fairly restrictive regarding which religious organizations are exempt from discrimination law. But the California Fair Employment and Housing Act, written in 1959, doesn't apply to "religious associations or corporations not organized for private profit," the court found.
The justices ruled 7-0 to overturn an appeals court ruling for McKeon. The ruling by the state's highest court does not address her discrimination claim; it merely confirms that the law does not apply to the hospital as a religious organization. The case cannot be appealed, both sides say.
This was a technical ruling on a technical case, said Cindy Holst, Mercy spokeswoman. "We didn't choose to bring this issue up," she said. "The exemption existed. The question was, was Mercy Healthcare Sacramento a religious organization as defined in the act? The state Supreme Court said . . . we are a religiously sponsored organization."
She said the hospital is still subject to 17 other anti-discrimination laws and is committed to providing "a fair and just workplace. This has been a moral obligation of our organization for more than a century, long before these laws existed." Mercy Healthcare Sacramento is sponsored by the Sisters of Mercy of Auburn, based in Sacramento since 1857.
Maureen Anderson, spokeswoman for the Service Employees International Union in San Francisco, said employees and outsiders were startled by Mercy's stance: "Why they would argue that they're not subject to age, sex and race discrimination laws that have been on the books for 40 years? It doesn't seem like a very smart move."
As religious organizations, these hospitals have always claimed they should be held to a higher standard, Anderson said. "Now we see in court that they should be held to a lower standard than others. It doesn't send a hopeful message about the company's agenda."
The SEIU is trying to organize the Mercy hospitals in Sacramento. It has been frustrated by what it regards as hardball tactics by CHW to keep the union out, while Catholic teachings historically have supported the right to organize.
The Adventist church historically has taken the opposite view: Unions interfere in the direct relationship between believers and God.
For that reason, Ukiah (Calif.) Valley Medical Center has filed a petition before the National Labor Relations Board asserting that its religious status exempts it from the National Labor Relations Act.
The hospital is the only one serving Ukiah, 150 miles north of San Francisco. The two hospitals in the community merged in 1988, fending off a much-publicized antitrust lawsuit by the Federal Trade Commission.
In September the California Nurses Association filed a petition to organize the nurses at the 101-bed hospital. In its brief to the NLRB, the hospital responded, "The church believes that the self-sacrifice required for its healing mission is inherently incompatible with the economically self-serving goals of unions." If it must recognize the union, the church would have to end its ministry of healing, the brief threatened.
"The healthcare arm of the Adventist organization is an integral part of the operation, not a business run by the church," said ValGene Devitt, president and chief executive officer at the Ukiah hospital. "We are organized as religious not-for-profit organizations, as opposed to some other hospitals, which, even though they have religious ties, are organized as community-benefit not-for-profits."
The hospital is citing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993. That act is supposed to protect religious institutions from government interference.
The Adventist faith has 850,000 adherents in the United States and operates 37 hospitals in 13 states. California has 14 of those hospitals.
No Adventist hospital in the country recognizes a collective bargaining unit, said Kermit Netteburg, spokesman for the church at its Silver Spring, Md., headquarters. "The confrontational tactics of unions don't fit with the way the church wants to do business," he said.
Devitt said the Ukiah hospital is just barely breaking even financially and has instituted a pay freeze that affects all salaries and wages, including his own.
Rose Ann DeMoro, executive director of the CNA, said: "This is such a misuse of religion that it's astounding." Nothing in the law "says employers should be able to force their religious beliefs on their workers."
Charles Idelson, spokesman for the CNA, added that the hospital is asking for a selective application of the law. "They're deriving a substantial portion of their revenue from the federal government," he said. "They're not refusing to take Medicare and Medicaid. They're not refusing to pay money into Social Security for their employees."
Of 170 nurses who work at Ukiah Valley, only 20 are Adventists, he said. "It's a captive labor market."
The CNA said it expects a ruling from the NLRB's regional office in San Francisco shortly.