The Supreme Judicial Court ruled today that a professor denied a promotion at a religious college retains the right to sue because she is not a "minister," which would otherwise let the school discriminate against her on religious grounds.
Even though Margaret DeWeese-Boyd was required to "integrate the Christian faith into her teaching, scholarship, and advising" as a social-work professor at Gordon College in Wenham, "she did not teach religion or religious texts, lead her students in prayer, take students to chapel services or other religious services, deliver sermons at chapel services, or select liturgy," and therefore she's exempt from the First Amendment "ministerial exception" that lets religious organizations treat employees as if state anti-discrimination laws didn't exist, the state's highest court concluded.
The court acknowledged it was walking a fine line given Gordon College considers itself a religious institution and its requirement that professors integrate its particular view of Christianity into their work, but rejected the school's assertion that anybody who works there, including janitors, cafeteria workers and bus drivers, are "ministers" under the First Amendment who can be fired or demoted at will based on the supposed religious tenets of college leaders. Even the US Supreme Court has not gone that far in its protections of the First Amendment rights of religious institutions, the SJC wrote.
At the crux of the issue is a clause in the professors' handbook that calls all professors "ministers." A college lawyer inserted the clause in the handbook in 2016, some 18 years after DeWeese-Boyd was hired, and without any consultation with the faculty. That sparked an uproar at a faculty meeting, at which DeWeese-Boyd rose to speak against it.
Although she already had tenure, she was up for a promotion to "full professor" at the time - a promotion later supported unanimously by the faculty senate - but the college decided not to promote her.
She sued, and in addition to the handbook change, argued the college was out to punish her because of her "vocal opposition to Gordon's policies and practices regarding individuals who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer (or questioning), and others."
Last year, a Superior Court judge agreed with her contention and rejected a Gordon motion to dismiss the case because of the ministerial exemption - but then granted the school's motion to seek advice from an appeals court on whether that was a mistake.
In its ruling today, the court first rejected DeWeese-Boyd's argument that Gordon was a liberal-arts college, not a religious organization, saying it was pretty clear the college was a non-denominational religious organization falling under the First Amendment.
But that was the only thing the court agreed with the college about.
If the ministerial exception applies, even if such allegations are true, the religious institution will be free to discriminate on those bases.The same would be true for racial discrimination or discrimination on the basis of national origin.
The court continued, however, that the school never treated her as a minister, nor expected her to act like one.
DeWeese-Boyd is not ordained by any church body or denomination, nor was she ever formally commissioned or ordained as a minister for Gordon. She was never required to complete education or professional development regarding ministerial responsibilities. She never viewed herself or held herself out as a minister for Gordon, nor did she understand her job to include responsibility for encouraging students to participate in religious life or leading them in spiritual exercises. She did not teach religion or biblical studies to students, take students to religious services at Gordon, lead or select content for chapel services at Gordon, conduct Bible studies at Gordon, or preach at Gordon. She attended Gordon chapel services approximately twice per year.
The court compared her status to that of a woman with similar claims, who lost her suit against a Lutheran school, and two teachers who also lost their suit against a Catholic school, both before the US Supreme Court. In the first case:
Cheryl Perich was a "called" teacher, who had undergone formal religious training and accepted a formal call to religious service. Both Perich and her employer viewed her as a minister, and her employer commissioned, reviewed, and referred to her as such. Her formal title was "Minister of Religion, Commissioned." chapel service. Her job duties included "lead[ing] others toward Christian maturity"and "teach[ing] faithfully the Word of God," and to this end she taught her students religion, led them in prayer three times a day, took them to chapel, and occasionally led the chapel service. She also claimed a special housing allowance on her taxes that was available only to employees earning their compensation "in the exercise of the ministry."
In both those cases, the people who sued were clearly "ministers" under the law, in a way DeWeese-Boyd never was, the court said.
Unlike Perich, [DeWeese-Boyd never held herself out as a minister or referred to herself as such, and never claimed a ministerial housing allowance.
And so, the court concluded:
A faculty member with DeWeese-Boyd's responsibilities at Gordon is significantly different from the ordained ministers or teachers of religion at primary or secondary schools in the cases that have come before the Supreme Court. DeWeese-Boyd was not ordained or commissioned; she was not held out as a minister and did not view herself as a minister; and she was not required to undergo formal religious training, pray with her students, participate in or lead religious services, take her students to chapel services, or teach a religious curriculum. Her responsibility to integrate the Christian faith into her teaching, scholarship,and advising was different in kind, and not degree, from the religious instruction and guidance at issue in Our Lady of Guadalupe and Hosanna-Tabor.
And then the court rejected Gordon's college that all its employees, no matter how remote from the daily religious observances or education of students, are "ministers:"
The integration of religious faith and belief with daily life and work is a common requirement in many, if not all, religious institutions. As a result, the breadth of this expansion of the ministerial exception and its eclipsing and elimination of civil law protection against discrimination would be enormous.