Professor punished by university for refusing to use transgender pronouns appeals case

Massie Hall at Shawnee State University
Massie Hall at Shawnee State University | Wikimedia Commons/Tstrickland

A Christian philosophy professor at a state university in southern Ohio who was punished for objecting to using opposite sex pronouns when addressing a trans-identified student is appealing his case.

The appeal comes after a federal judge dismissed the lawsuit of Nicholas Meriwether, who argued that Shawnee State University unlawfully disciplined him after he refused to accede to the demands of a male student by referring to him as a woman and using female pronouns.

Meriwether is being represented by Christian legal group Alliance Defending Freedom, which specializes in religious liberty and First Amendment law.

“Professors don’t give up their First Amendment freedoms simply by choosing to teach,” said ADF Senior Counsel Travis Barham, in a Thursday statement.

“Public universities have no business trying to force people to express ideological beliefs that they do not hold. Dr. Meriwether remains committed to serving all students with respect, but he cannot express all messages or endorse all ideologies. When the university tried to force him to do this and then punished him for exercising his rights, it violated the First Amendment.”

Barham believes the magistrate both misinterpreted and misapplied the law.

"The district court should not have adopted her recommendations and dismissed the case,” Barham explained.

“That’s why we’re asking the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit to reverse both rulings and allow Dr. Meriwether to continue pursuing justice.”

Meriwether's ordeal began in January 2018, during a political philosophy class he was teaching wherein he replied to a male student’s question by saying, “Yes, sir.”

The student informed the professor after class that he identified as transgender and told him that he must be addressed as female. When the professor did not immediately agree, the student became angry, said he would get Meriwether fired, and filed a complaint with the school, which set in motion a formal inquiry.

Meriwether reportedly said he would call the student by his preferred name but that was not enough for the university and he was accused of creating a "hostile environment” for the student. He was also given a written warning and threatened with “further corrective actions” unless he fully complied.

“This isn’t just about a pronoun; this is about endorsing an ideology,” ADF Senior Counsel Tyson Langhofer, director of the ADF Center for Academic Freedom, said.

“The university favors certain beliefs, and it wants to force Dr. Meriwether to cry uncle and endorse them as well. That’s neither legal nor constitutional, and neither was the process the university has used to get to this point." 

Legal disputes where transgender ideology is concerned have been percolating through the federal judiciary in recent years, where competing claims of religious freedom, free speech and employment rights are being adjudicated.

In October, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case of R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes v. EEOC & Aimee Stephens. Stephens is a trans-identifying man who's claiming wrongful termination. The funeral home fired Stephens for failing to comply with the sex-specific dress code and would not agree to recognize him as a woman while on the job. A ruling is expected by the end of June.

In a separate case earlier this year, Judge Stuart Kyle Duncan of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, denied the request of a trans-identified sex offender who wanted the criminal justice system to refer to him by using female pronouns.  

The convict, a man named Norman Varner, who's in federal prison for possession of child pornography, started identifying as transgender in 2015 and had reportedly indicated his plans to undergo elective surgery to try to look more like a woman. The Fifth Circuit heard his case after he appealed a lower court's decision prohibiting him from changing his name to "Katherine Nicole Jett" in an attempt to be recognized as a woman despite having male anatomy. 

“If a court orders one litigant referred to as ‘her’ (instead of ‘him’), then the court can hardly refuse when the next litigant moves to be referred to as ‘xemself’ (instead of ‘himself’)," Duncan wrote in his opinion.

Follow Brandon Showalter on Facebook: BrandonMarkShowalterFollow Brandon Showalter on Twitter: @BrandonMShow

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