Civil Rights

Reason of the Witch

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Can witchcraft triumph over a politically connected teachers union? Robert L. Hurt, an accounting professor at California State Polytechnic University, is pitting his Wiccan faith against the California Faculty Association. Hurt doesn't actually belong to the union, but because he is a state employee, money is withdrawn from his paycheck and given to the CFA. (Under California's Higher Education Employment Relations Act, all state university employees must pay dues to the union even if they aren't members.) Hurt asked the union if he could instead pay the money to a charity of his choice, but it denied his request. The professor then wrote to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which advised him he had a potential legal action under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits religious discrimination on the job.

The central tenet of Wicca, known as the "Rede," commands that believers "do no harm." Hurt thinks union activities cause economic harm to both members and nonmembers through state-enforced dues payments. Hurt filed suit against the CFA in November. He is represented by Bruce Cameron, a lawyer with the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation. Cameron says he's won plenty of similar cases on Title VII grounds.

"Title VII requires employers and unions to accommodate religious beliefs if it doesn't cause undue hardship," Cameron says. "The most common solution is to allow the employee to redirect union fees to a charity. That's been accepted in case after case. What is different about this case is the nature of the employee's religion." The union has until mid-January to respond to the filing. Cameron expects it will attempt to deny that Hurt's outré faith is a real, sincerely felt religious creed.