National Labor Relations Board v. Catholic Bishop of Chicago (1979)

This is one of many cases where the Supreme Court insisted on a protective shield for religious institutions against government authorities who otherwise would have power over similarly situated civil organizations. The Court interpreted the National Labor Relations Act as not encompassing teachers at Catholic parochial schools because of the inevitable tension and entanglement between civil law and church doctrine. Rather than holding the Act unconstitutional as applied, the Court invoked its power to interpret legislation in a manner to avoid constitutional conflict—a power exercised under the principle that a statute of Congress is entitled to great deference from the courts, and the courts should therefore try to interpret such a statute in a way that avoids conflict with the Constitution.

In response to the teachers’ union complaints that the conflicts were illusory and could be managed without fear of entanglement, the Court said, “It is not only the conclusion that may be reached by the Board which may infringe on rights guaranteed by the Religion Clauses, but also the very process of inquiry leading to findings and conclusions.” Those words have been quoted in numerous religious freedom cases to protect against church/state entanglement.