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Charity case: PA teachers sue after union objects to donations

By   /   September 19, 2014  /   News  /   No Comments

By Andrew Staub | PA Independent

HARRISBURG, Pa. — After facilitating classes about the U.S. Constitution, longtime teacher Jane Ladley wanted to donate to a college scholarship fund that encouraged youth to learn about the country’s founding principles.

The Pennsylvania State Education Association put the kibosh on that plan. Now the dispute is part of a lawsuit that alleges the teachers union violated state law and possibly even the document that Ladley holds in such high esteem, the U.S. Constitution.

The lawsuit centers upon a state law that gives Ladley the ability to donate her fair-share fee — the $435 she had to pay to the union for representation regardless if she was a member — to a nonreligious charity since she was a religious objector to the PSEA.

“Frankly, this was my money and my choice,” said Ladley, who recently retired from the Avon Grove School District in Chester County after a quarter-century of teaching.

Photo by Andrew Staub/PA Independent

CHARITY CASE: Retired teacher Jane Ladley, shown in photo, has sued the Pennsylvania State Education Association after it objected to her choice of charity.

But the PSEA in March denied Ladley’s choice of the Coalition for Advancing Freedom’s Sustainable Freedom Scholarship. In a letter to the teacher, the union said it was “not amenable to your suggestion as the charity appears to be political and we have a policy of not allowing political organizations to receive fair share fees,” according to the lawsuit.

The coalition’s website indicates that, in addition to promoting understanding of the U.S. Constitution, it can offer instructions on how to run for public office, help with campaign activities and support for or opposition to legislation.

A second religious objector, Lancaster County teacher Chris Meier, is also suing the union as part of the lawsuit. According to court documents, the PSEA deemed Meier’s choice to donate his fair-share fee to National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation a conflict of interest, considering the teacher’s chosen recipient had been a litigant against the PSEA and the National Education Association before.

The lawsuit alleges the PSEA is trying to add language to the statute, which just says a charity must be nonreligious.

“When the PSEA says ‘conflict of interest,’ it really just means that they don’t agree with Mr. Meier’s selection,” said Nate Bohlander, an attorney with The Fairness Center, a nonprofit public interest law firm representing the two teachers in the lawsuit.

For now, the two teachers’ fair-share fees are sitting in escrow and earning interest, according to the lawsuit, which was filed in Lancaster County.

Responding to the lawsuit, PSEA spokesman David Broderic said the union is just following state law and its own policies.

The statute that covers religious objectors indicates they can donate the equivalent of their fair-share fee to a “nonreligious charity agreed upon by the nonmember and the exclusive representative.” The charity must be “mutually acceptable,” Broderic said.

“We’ve always made every effort to accommodate these requests,” he said. “We just need to make sure that they apply with the law and our policy and we’re happy to accommodate them.”

In Ladley’s case, the union also argued Ladley’s selected charity was a religious organization, according to the lawsuit.

As evidence, PSEA cited part of the Coalition for Advancing Freedom’s website that said “We believe in God in the Judeo-Christian tradition, and like our founders, believe that faith and religious practice contribute positively to a moral and civil society.”

Ladley has also suggested the Constitutional Organization of Liberty as an alternate charity, but hasn’t received a response from the PSEA, according to the lawsuit.

While the lawsuit drew media attention this week, Broderic said disagreements over the donations rarely arise. Of the union’s 180,000 members, about 200 use the religious objection clause, he said. And of those, about five cases are under review, he added.

Regardless, at least two teachers have raised an alarm, saying the union shouldn’t force them to change their choices of charity. While taking aim at the PSEA, the lawsuit also raises the possibility the “agreed upon” portion of the statue itself could be unconstitutional.

Ladley said she’s fighting for principle. While Meier couldn’t attend a press conference about the lawsuit because he was at work, he echoed the sentiment in news release.

“I want freedom of choice — to be able to donate to the charity I choose,” he said.

Andrew Staub is a reporter for PA Independent and can be reached at [email protected] Follow @PAIndependent on Twitter for more.

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Andrew formerly served as staff reporter for Watchdog.org.