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Judge denies Christian college 'ministerial exception' to ex professor’s discrimination lawsuit

Judge denies Christian college 'ministerial exception' to ex professor’s discrimination lawsuit

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

A judge has barred Gordon College from using a “ministerial exception” defense in a lawsuit brought by a former professor who claims she was denied a promotion over her opposition to the evangelical institution's policies on sexuality.

Judge Jeffrey T. Karp of the Massachusetts Superior Court ruled last week that Gordon College can’t avail itself of a legal doctrine that exempts religious institutions from employment discrimination laws. 

The college, which was founded in 1889, was sued by former associate professor Margaret DeWeese-Boyd in 2017. Deweese-Boyd began working as an assistant professor with Gordon’s Social Work Department in the fall of 1999 and was later promoted to associate professor. 

She claims that Gordon College Provost Janel Curry and President D. Michael Lindsay denied her promotion to full professorship in February 2017 even though the promotion was recommended by the faculty senate. She claims the denial came because of her advocacy against school policies related to LGBT individuals and extramarital sex.

In her lawsuit, the former professor argues that the school committed “associational and gender discrimination” in violation of the state’s Civil Rights Act in addition to breaching the “implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing.” DeWeese-Boyd claimed that Lindsay and Curry aided and abetted “interference with her civil rights.”

The college filed a motion seeking a summary judgment from the court to determine whether the ministerial exception clause — as affirmed by the Supreme Court in its Hosanna-Tabor ruling from 2012 — barred Deweese-Boyd from suing on the basis of employment discrimination.

The ministerial exception is an affirmative defense grounded in the First Amendment that prevents the government from interfering with employment relationships between religious institutions and their ministerial employees. 

The parties appeared before the court in November 2019 for a hearing on the motion and the college argued that Deweese-Boyd was responsible for integrating faith-based beliefs into her teachings as a professor and qualified as a ministerial employee. 

But DeWeese-Boyd, who received a master’s degree from Covenant Theological Seminary and has served as a missionary in the Philippines, denied the claim that the “ministerial exception” applied to her position of employment since she has never worked as a minister. Karp agreed. 

“DeWeese-Boyd argues she was not a ministerial employee because her title did not suggest any ministerial or religious role, she did not hold herself out as a minister, and she did not perform any religious functions of a minister,” Karp wrote. 

“The Court concludes the strict application urged by DeWeese-Boyd is misplaced and inconsistent with how the ministerial exception has been applied before and after Hosanna-Tabor. Nevertheless, as discussed below, the Court finds that, when applying the proper framework, DeWeese-Boyd is not a minister for purposes of the exception.”  

According to the Gordon College handbook, faculty members are “expected to be fully prepared in all facets of their tasks as Christian teachers and advisors” as well as “engage students in their respective disciplines from the perspectives of the Christian faith and to teach with accuracy and integrity.”

Although Gordon College does not require faculty members to have a seminary degree, the college requires employees to sign a document stating that they will “support the goals and objectives of Gordon College as a distinctively Christian Institution of higher learning” and abide by Gordon college statement of faith and conduct. 

As part of its Statement of Life and Conduct, Gordon College requires faculty members to “[r]ecognize the Bible to be the Word of God and hence fully authoritative in matters of faith and conduct” and “[h]ave a sincere desire for that commitment to mature both in insight and behavior.”

The statement requires faculty members to refrain from “words and actions which are expressly forbidden in Scripture.”

“President Lindsay testified that all Gordon employees must be ‘committed to the evangelical mission of the institution,’ and that ‘journeys of faith are evaluated . . . when employees are hired’ and ‘through the performance review process,’” the judge wrote in his ruling. 

“He testified further that, when he interviews faculty applicants, he emphasizes ‘the importance of taking seriously signing the Statement of Faith and the Statement of Life and Conduct and being able to embrace the Christian mission and purpose of the institution.’” 

DeWeese-Boyd not only publicly spoke out about her opposition to Gordon College’s policies related to LGBT students and staff, she also organized meetings and events to call for the “safety and inclusion” of LGBT students. 

According to the ruling, Curry maintained that DeWeese-Boyd was denied the application for full professorship because her scholarly productivity “did not reach acceptable levels” for a Gordon faculty member. 

Curry also questioned DeWeese-Boyd’s “professionalism and follow through on institutional projects about which she may not feel passionate was lacking.”

Karp ruled that although the Supreme Court ruled in Hosannah-Tabor that churches and religious institutions have the right to select their own ministers, the court identified four “considerations” relevant to determining if ministerial exceptions apply. 

Those four exceptions are: “the employee’s ‘formal title,’ ‘the substance reflected in that title,’ the employee’s ‘use of that title,’ and ‘the important religious functions [the employee] performed.’”

“In sum, although DeWeese-Boyd had a seminary degree when hired, she did not have a religious title at Gordon,” Karp stated. “[S]he did not represent herself as a minister, she did not play an integral (or any) role in religious services, she did not convey Christian doctrine to the Gordon community, she did not lead her students in prayer, and she did not perform any religious functions.”

As the Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly observed, Superior Court Judge Salim R. Tabit in 2018 ordered the case to be bifurcated to allow for the ministerial exception issue to be settled individually. With Karp ruling against the ministerial exception claim, the case will proceed to determine the merits of DeWeese-Boyd’s lawsuit. 

The U.S. Supreme Court was slated to hear two cases brought against California Catholic schools sued for terminating religion teachers. Advocates believed those cases could determine how far ministerial exceptions go when it comes to protecting religious institutions from employment discrimination lawsuits. But because of the coronavirus pandemic, hearings have been postponed

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