Mass. High Court to Decide Whether Christian College Discriminated in Denying Professor Promotion

Photo Credit: John Phelan

BOSTON — The Supreme Judicial Court in Massachusetts is currently weighing a case surrounding whether or not a Christian college can consider its professors as tantamount to “ministers” and may consequently legally deny an employee a promotion without being held liable for discrimination due to the “ministerial exception” legal doctrine based on the First Amendment.

A former professor at Gordon College — a private, non-denominational liberal arts institution in Wenham — accuses the school of declining to promote her because she criticized the school’s policies against homosexual behavior, while the college says that it did so because of her insufficient scholarship and cites the “ministerial exception” to defend its decision from legal liability.

“To decide that question, the court need look no further than her own actions,” attorney Eric Baxter with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty said on Monday during virtual oral argument. “[DeWeese-Boyd] admits that Gordon expected her to participate actively in the spiritual formation of its students and to help them apply biblical principles to their vocations.”

“When she applied at Gordon, she touted her seminary training and mission work as of particular benefit to students and promised to provide a distinctly Christian education,” he noted. “In seeking advancements, she consistently described her work as integrally Christian, as furthering the kingdom of God and as participation in the ministry of Christian reconciliation.”

As previously reported, in 2017, Margaret DeWeese-Boyd, then an associate professor of sociology at Gordon College, filed a complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, claiming that she had wrongfully been denied a promotion because of her criticism of the school’s policy prohibiting homosexual behavior.

Gordon College, which according to its website, aims to “deepen the faith [of students] by integrating Christian beliefs and practice into all aspects of [the] educational experience,” prohibits sexual activity outside of marriage in its Life and Conduct Statement—including between those of the same sex.

The school also holds to the scriptural position that God created the woman for the man, as outlined in the book of Genesis.

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“The Gordon community is expected to refrain from any sexual intercourse — heterosexual or homosexual; premarital or extramarital — outside of the marriage covenant,” an explanation of the college’s policy on homosexuality reads.

Gordon notes that its lifestyle statement does not refer to those that struggle with attractions to those of the same sex, but only prohibits engaging in homosexual behavior. The school’s policies also forbid drunkenness, profanity, blasphemy, lying and other behaviors that are contrary to biblical law.

DeWeese-Boyd, who attends an Episcopal church, had been a vocal opponent of the college’s policy on homosexuality and had organized training sessions and events surrounding homosexual rights. The faculty Senate had recommended that she be promoted (she had previously been promoted from assistant to associate professor in 2004), but in 2017, Gordon College President D. Michael Lindsay declined to upgrade the professor to a full teaching position.

DeWeese-Boyd then filed a complaint in alleging discrimination, and it was later announced that all seven members of the faculty Senate had resigned. The matter soon went to court and the college argued that the “ministerial exception” to anti-discrimination law applied in the situation as its professors are considered as imparting spiritual truth to students.

While Gordon College argued that the reason she was not promoted was because of her inadequate scholarship, such as not publishing any papers since 2008 — and not due to her objection to the college’s policies, it said that the ministerial exception still applies even when the reason for denying a promotion is not related to religion.

In April, Judge Jeffrey T. Karp of the Massachusetts Superior Court sided in part with DeWeese-Boyd, finding that while Gordon college is indeed a religious institution, the professor did not perform ministerial duties.

“Here, although DeWeese-Boyd was expected to integrate the principles and concepts that underlie the Christian evangelical tradition with her teaching, she had no religious duties and did not actively promote the tenets of evangelical Christianity,” he wrote.

“Based on the record before the court, the court concludes that Gordon’s requirement of the integration of faith and teaching by a social work professor did not involve any expectation that she would actively proselytize or preach religious tenets or doctrine to the students in her classes,” Karp stated.

DeWeese-Boyd’s attorney, Hillary Schwab, had made a similar argument before the commonwealth’s high court, arguing, “She performed no religious or ministerial functions for the college whatsoever. She did not: teach religion or the Bible; lead chapel services; take students to chapel services or other religious services; deliver sermons at chapel services; select liturgy, hymns, or other content for chapel services; and/or conduct Bible studies.”

During oral argument on Monday, the seven justices of the Supreme Judicial Court seemed to wrestle with when to consider someone a minister, asking Baxter if the employment discrimination exception would apply to, for instance, a math teacher.

“So, if there’s a biology teacher doing stem cell research, that might be a secular subject as to which there’s value laden implications, and so that person would be a minister?” also inquired Justice Dailia Wendlandt.

“I don’t understand how you make the distinction of how everybody in this school is not under the ministerial exception,” similarly remarked Justice Elspeth Cypher. “[N]o matter what you’re teaching, its integrating their faith. So, why aren’t all the teachers ministers?”

“There would have to be evidence that the professor was there, was using her teaching to convey the faith and to form students in the faith, which is going to be … much more difficult in the situation of a bio-sciences professor than a social science [professor], where professor DeWeese-Boyd herself said that everything she did was working toward applying Christian principles to reform society,” Baxter said.

Amicus briefs were submitted by supporters on both sides of the matter, including the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, which argued, “At Christian colleges and universities, all courses are infused with faith. That is the distinctive promise a typical religious college makes to students and their families — that all instruction will be shaped by the school’s particular theological understandings. Thus, the social-work course, the math course, and the English literature course are all taught and studied from a faith-based perspective.”

As previously reported, Gordon College first came under fire in 2014 after President Lindsay was found to be among those who signed a letter to then-President Barack Obama requesting that a religious exemption be included in the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which bars the government from contracting with “discriminatory” organizations.

In an online message to Gordon College students and staff, Lindsay explained that he signed the letter out of his belief that religious entities should not be punished for being faithful to the Scriptures.

“My sole intention in signing this letter was to affirm the college’s support of the underlying issue of religious liberty, including the right of faith-based institutions to set and adhere to standards which derive from our shared framework of faith, and which we all have chosen to embrace as members of the Gordon community,” he wrote.

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