Child care providers who oppose unionization asked a federal judge Thursday to block a first-ever union election for in-home providers in Minnesota, saying it violates federal law and the U.S. Constitution.

Supporters of the union election, provided for in a law passed by the DFL-controlled Legislature in May, argued that judicial interference would deny providers the right to make up their own minds about union representation.

U.S. District court Judge Michael Davis heard nearly two and one-half hours of arguments in two separate lawsuits aimed at blocking the election. He made no immediate decision, but said he would try to issue a ruling soon.

"These are employers," said attorney Doug Seaton, representing one group of providers who oppose the union and want to halt the election. Under federal law, he said, self-employed child care providers "cannot be in bargaining units."

"Child care providers have a right to vote," responded Gregg Corwin, representing the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees' Council 5, which is seeking to represent the providers. "This court should not interfere with a legislative judgment that they have a right to vote."

Davis heard arguments from both sides on both suits.  Lawyers for providers opposed to unions are seeking an order to halt the election and, eventually, to throw out the new law; lawyers for the state and AFSCME are seeking to dismiss the suits and allow the election to continue.

At issue is a hotly-contested law passed by the Legislature and signed by Dayton. It allows certain in-home child care providers -- those who care for children receiving state subsidies -- to vote on whether to unionize. The law also allows certain in-home personal care attendants to vote on unionization, but the lawsuits focus only on the portion of the law applying to child care providers.

Solicitor General Alan Gilbert, representing the state, said the suit is not "ripe" in the legal sense, because there are so many "contingent possibilities" that must occur before the plaintiffs suffer any legal harm from unionization. Corwin, representing AFSCME Council 5, said a decision to block the election would harm those who want the right to vote.

"Their rights are going to be abridged," he said.

Seaton said federal law is clear that "employers cannot be unionized," and child care providers clearly meet the definition of employer -- not employee.

William Messenger, a lawyer from the Virginia-based National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, called the bill a case of "collectivizing providers" and added: "Citizens cannot be collectivized to make them happy." He argued that the bill should be invalidated because it violates the providers' constitutional right of free association.

Gilbert responded that the law allows anyone to continue to petition the government on child care issues, to form other organizations or to refuse to join the union.

State Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville, a child care union foe and candidate to replace Dayton next year, attended the hearing and said he would make it an issue in the campaign.