Seattle University may say it is a Catholic Jesuit school, but that does not mean it really is a religious institution, says the National Labor Relations Board.

On Thursday, the federal labor law enforcement agency ruled that the school was not exempt from the NLRB's authority and its adjunct professors could therefore unionize.

The ruling clears a path for a vote by the adjuncts, who work at non-tenure-track positions that are also lower-paying than full professorships despite often involving heavy course loads. About half of the school's 700-member faculty are adjuncts. Service Employees International Union Local 925 has been seeking to represent them.

The university had sought a religious exemption from the National Labor Relations Act. It cited the Supreme Court's 1979 NLRB v. Catholic Bishop of Chicago ruling, which held that the board's authority doesn't extend to "schools operated by a church to teach both religious and secular subjects."

Placing the school under the jurisdiction of federal labor law could "infringe on our Jesuit tradition and Catholic identity," the school's president has argued. Its position is backed by the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities and the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities.

On April 24, Ronald Hooks, the NLRB's regional director for the Seattle area, rejected the school's argument. He said the university was "not a church-operated institution within the meaning of" the Supreme Court's precedent because it lacks "substantial religious character." In short, Hooks said Seattle University was just a private school.

He cited, among other reasons: that the school is a mostly financially self-sustaining institution that does not receive funding from either the Catholic Church or the Society of Jesus; that only a minority of students were themselves Catholic; and that its required course study includes only one class in theology.

The university said it will appeal the decision to the full board. It has until May 1 to do so.