Mass. high court to decide if evangelical college discriminated against pro-LGBT professor

The A. J. Gordon Memorial Chapel at Gordon College, a Christian academic institution located in Wenham, Massachusetts. | (Photo: Mark Spooner)

The highest court in Massachusetts heard oral arguments on Monday regarding whether an evangelical Christian higher education institution can lawfully refuse to promote a former professor who held pro-LGBT views.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court heard arguments virtually over a lawsuit filed against Gordon College by former associate professor Margaret DeWeese-Boyd.

At issue is whether Gordon, founded in 1889, could lawfully deny a promotion to DeWeese-Boyd by citing the “ministerial exception,” a legal principle that allows religious bodies to choose their own ministerial staff with exemption from employment discrimination law. 

Eric Baxter, an attorney with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty who is representing the school, argued in his opening remarks that the exception applied to the employment of DeWeese-Boyd since she was expected to undertake certain religious obligations.

“The Court need look no further than her own actions,” said Baxter. “She 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.”

Baxter added that DeWeese-Boyd “consistently described her work as integrally Christian, as furthering the Kingdom of God, and as participation in the ministry of Christian reconciliation.”

Hillary Schwab, an attorney representing DeWeese-Boyd, argued that the U.S. Supreme Court precedent on ministerial exception was that “what matters is what an employee does.”

“And what did Professor DeWeese-Boyd do?” Schwab asked. “She was a social work professor. She taught social work topics. She researched and wrote on social work. Her interests included community development, poverty, social issues, grassroots movements.”

Schwab pointed out that these were “all secular social work topics” that did not fit the standard of “vital religious duties” laid out in the 2020 Supreme Court decisionOur Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru.

In that decision, the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that two California Catholic schools can classify their religion teachers as ministers and not be held to the standards of state antidiscrimination laws.

According to Schwab, the secular nature of DeWeese-Boyd’s employment was evident in the fact that “she never led sermons” and “she never led chapel services” or “religious teaching.”

Schwab also argued that Gordon was not a religious school, per se, since the college provides a liberal arts education and does not solely focus on spiritual instruction.

“The school [does] not incorporate evangelical teachings; it incorporates an evangelical perspective within the framework of academic freedom,” she continued.

“The professors at Gordon College are expected to be experts in their field and the field for Professor DeWeese-Boyd was social work. They are not expected to be experts in any sort of religious duties.”

Schwab disputed the claim that the former professor emphasized her seminary background when first applying for her position at Gordon, saying “that was not part of her promotional package” when she applied for the promotion.

In 2017, DeWeese-Boyd filed a complaint against Gordon after being denied a promotion despite the professor getting the recommendation of the faculty senate.

DeWeese-Boyd claimed that she was discriminated against due to her advocacy on behalf of the LGBT community against school policies that adhered to traditional biblical sexual ethics. 

Specifically, she argued that Gordon's leadership committed “associational and gender discrimination,” breached the “implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing” and aided and abetted “interference with her civil rights.”

For their part, Gordon College argued for the ministerial exception and also claimed that Deweese-Boyd lacked sufficient scholarly accomplishments.

“It was because she had not performed any scholarship, she had not published anything since 2008, and she was cited as not adequate performing within providing internal institutional service,” noted Baxter during the Monday arguments.

In April, Judge Jeffrey T. Karp of the Massachusetts Superior Court ruled in favor of DeWeese-Boyd. The judge argued that she was not “a ministerial employee” and so the exception did not apply.

“The College is not a church. The College's faculty and staff do not function as ministers. The faculty members are not intermediaries between a church and its congregation,” wrote Karp.

“That faculty members are expected to serve as exemplars of practicing Christians does not serve to make the terms and conditions of their employment matters of church administration and thus purely of ecclesiastical concern.”

In 2017, the entire seven-member faculty senate at Gordon College resigned in the wake of DeWeese-Boyd being denied the promotion. 

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston submitted an amicus brief in the case, warning that the lower court's decision in favor of the professor conflicted with the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. 

"The Archdiocese submits this brief in support of neither party because it does not take a position on other issues addressed in the parties’ briefing," lawyers for the Archdiocese wrote, according to the Gloucester Daily Times. "But with respect to the application of the ministerial exception to teachers in religious schools, the trial court’s decision adopts a framework that is in conflict with the First Amendment and Supreme Court precedent. The Archdiocese’s interest in clarifying the proper framework reflects the centrality of education and educators in the Catholic faith." 

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