PORTSMOUTH, Ohio — A federal judge nominated to the bench by then-President Bill Clinton has dismissed a legal challenge filed by a Christian professor at Shawnee State University who was reprimanded for declining to refer to a male student with female pronouns. The school had accused the professor of creating a “hostile environment” despite his attempts to be respectful to the student, while avoiding the use of any pronouns “due to [his] conscience, ethical [and] religious convictions, [and his] views on free speech.”
“The court concludes that Meriwether failed to state a claim for violation of his rights under the United States Constitution. His speech — the manner by which he addressed a transgender student — was not protected under the First Amendment,” wrote U.S. District Judge Susan Dlott on Feb. 12.
“Further, he did not plead facts sufficient to state a claim for a violation of his right to free exercise of religion, for a departure from religious neutrality,” she added, pointing to the U.S. Supreme Court Masterpiece Cakeshop ruling which found that the government had acted with hostility toward a Christian bakery owner’s faith.
As previously reported, Dr. Nicholas Meriwether, a philosophy professor at Shawnee State University, says that for many years, he has referred to his students as “mister” or “miss” or “sir” or “ma’am” as a way of teaching his students how to be respectful to each other, especially in environments where there is sharp disagreement over a controversial subject matter.
In January 2018, during his political philosophy class, he responded to a male student’s question with a “Yes, sir,” but was approached by the student after class, who advised that he identifies as female and would prefer to be referred to with feminine pronouns.
Meriwether says that he thought for a moment and then told the student that he was not sure if he could comply with the request. The student consequently became angry and spouted a vulgarity in close proximity to Meriwether’s face. He allegedly threatened to have the professor fired if he did not refer to him as a woman.
Meriwether reported the incident to university officials, and was instructed by Roberta Milliken, the dean of the university’s college of arts and sciences, to refer to students by their last name only, eliminating any use of pronouns. Meriwether wasn’t sold on the idea, as he thought it felt more like something a football coach would do, as opposed to a philosophy professor.
However, he told Milliken that he would do so in regard to the particular student, while using pronouns for everyone else.
Days later, Milliken approached Meriwether to advise that the student was unhappy with only being called by his last name and had threatened to file a Title IX complaint. Milliken, who originally agreed with Meriwether’s arrangement, told Meriwether that he must refer to the student by his preferred pronoun or he would be in violation of the university’s non-discrimination policy.
Meriwether replied that he would be willing to refer to the student by his desired name, but would not use any titles in front of it, such as “mister” or “miss.” The student went on to complete the class and was given a high grade.
However, in the meantime, Milliken launched an investigation against Meriwether due to the receipt of another complaint from the student. Meriwether outlined in writing that he could not refer to a man as a woman “due to [his] conscience, ethical or religious convictions, or [his] views on free speech.”
He realized that he was faced with two choices: either stop using pronouns for all students and simply refer to them by their first name, or violate his religious beliefs by accommodating the student’s gender identity.
Milliken filed a formal charge against Meriwether, stating that he had created a “hostile environment” because of “the way he addressed” the student. A letter of warning was also placed in Meriwether’s file, and meetings with university leadership to explain his religious convictions were not fruitful.
The professor consequently filed suit, citing unlawful retaliation and viewpoint discrimination in violation of his First Amendment right to free speech, as well as infringement of his rights to free exercise of religion, due process and equal protection.
“By punishing and threatening to punish Dr. Meriwether for refusing to communicate a university-mandated ideological message regarding gender identity, defendants have attempted and are attempting to compel Dr. Meriwether’s speech, in violation of his rights under the First Amendment,” the lawsuit argued.
“Defendants’ non-discrimination policies and their enforcement of those policies compel Dr. Meriwether to communicate messages about gender identity that he does not hold, that he does not wish to communicate, and that conflict with (and for him to violate) his religious beliefs,” it read. “Expressing the University’s mandated message regarding gender identity would require Dr. Meriwether to violate his sincerely held religious beliefs.”
The university filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, and Magistrate Judge Sharon Litkovitz subsequently recommended in September to dismiss Meriwether’s federal claims for “failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.”
Judge Dlott accepted the recommendations in issuing her ruling last Wednesday.
“The court will adopt the magistrate judge’s recommendation to dismiss the federal claims,” she wrote. “Meriwether’s objections [to the recommendations] are overruled and the motion to dismiss is granted.”
Meriwether expressed disappointment in the ruling, which he says runs counter to tolerance. His attorneys with Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) are considering the next course of action.
“I encourage my students to express their political and religious views, and professors should have the same freedom,” he said in a statement, according to Cleveland.com. “But the university insisted that I endorse an ideology I do not believe is true. This is simply wrong. True tolerance must be a two-way street.”
“Now the district court suggests that professors have no free speech rights, which should trouble us all,” Meriwether lamented. “Public universities have no business compelling people to express ideological beliefs that they do not hold. But the court’s decision opens the door for them to shift from being a marketplace of ideas to an assembly line for one type of thought.”