Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
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Educator’s Catholic faith leads to Supreme Court free speech issue
by Mitch Finley, Inland Register staff
(From the Feb. 8, 2007 edition of the Inland Register)
Cindy Omlin of Spokane stands on the steps of the U. S. Supreme Court. (IR photo courtesy of Cindy Omlin)
Spokane’s Cindy Omlin – a 1979 graduate of Gonzaga University and, with husband John Omlin, a member of St. Thomas More Parish – recently returned from Washington, D.C., where she attended a Jan. 10 U.S. Supreme Court hearing that has a direct impact on thousands of teachers in Washington state.
Omlin is Executive Director of Northwest Professional Educators (NWPE), a Spokane-based non-union organization for professional educators which offers many of the same benefits as unions, including liability insurance and legal services. Omlin helped found NWPE in 2001 as an affiliate of the Association of American Educators.
She joined teachers from around the U.S. to advocate for individual teachers’ free speech right not to fund union politics they do not support. Omlin, a former speech-language pathologist for Spokane Public Schools, said that her Catholic faith was in conflict with the teachers union’s support for abortion-on-demand and gay marriage. “No one should have money taken from their paycheck to pay for someone else’s politics,” she said. “I went to Washington, D.C. to find out if the Supreme Court was going to make this right for teachers in my state.”
At issue is a paycheck protection law, approved by more than 70 percent of Washington state voters in 1992. This law requires unions to ask non-members to give their approval before using collective bargaining fees that are deducted from their paychecks to support political issues.
“Basically, the teachers union wants to use the non-union teachers’ collective bargaining fees for politics unless they ‘opt-out’ by sending in an objection letter every year,” she said. “Our side was arguing that Washington’s law requiring non-union teachers to ‘opt in’ for union politics better protects their free speech not to pay for politics they do not support and should be upheld by the Court as constitutional.”
The teachers arrived at the Supreme Court steps at 5 a.m. on Jan. 10, she said, and stood in sub-freezing weather to make sure that they would be in the courtroom during oral arguments by Washington State Attorney General Rob McKenna. “It was thrilling to sit so close to the justices,” she said. “The justices revealed a genuine concern for how this case affects real people like me. Their questions and comments made me feel as if they really understood how unfair the union’s practices are.
“It was remarkable to see teachers from across the country willing to interrupt their busy schedules and travel thousands of miles to put a professional educator’s face on an issue so fundamental to our rights as American citizens,” she said. “Teachers do not lose their constitutional rights when they enter the schoolhouse door.”
She said that Samuel Alito, the Court’s newest justice, asked, “Why should the First Amendment require anything other than an opt-in scheme?”
Following the hearing, teachers were briefed by attorneys about their impressions of the proceedings. Later, teachers met with Washington State Republican Congresswoman Cathy Mc-Morris, who serves on the House Education and Labor Committee. The group then toured the Capitol building.
“It has been a really long process,” said Omlin. “We have both union and non-union members who belong to NWPE, but I would say that the bulk of them are non-union. We have members who are in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, and Idaho is a right to work state, so more than likely the teachers from Idaho who belong to NWPE are non-union and they’re looking for protection and professional services from an organization that respects their values and doesn’t go off on these political tangents. We do have union members who join us because we have great liability protection and legal services.”
She said that “Teachers concerned with the tactics and politics of the teachers union worked together to establish NWPE as a choice for educators wanting an association they can be proud to join.” She encourages teachers to exercise their rights, “and they can go to our website (www. nwpe.org) to learn what their rights are,” she said.