Liberties Reporting on First Amendment freedoms

Is a college professor (legally) a minister?

Religious Liberty | Appeals court considers extent to which ministerial exception protects employment decisions of Christian college
by Steve West
Posted 1/08/21, 01:17 pm

After Gordon College in Wenham, Mass., denied Margaret DeWeese-Boyd promotion to full professorship, she sued the school in September 2017. The former social work professor claimed the evangelical school retaliated against her for advocating pro-LGBT views and opposing the institutional standards on human sexuality.

A state superior court agreed with the professor, ruling in April last year that her lawsuit against the school could proceed. Gordon appealed. On Monday, a Massachusetts appeals court considered the case, forcing it to wrestle with what has proved to be a difficult question: Who is a minister?

Like many other evangelical colleges, Gordon expects faculty as well as other employees and students to follow certain behavioral standards. The rules, among other things, bar homosexual practice and sexual activity outside marriage on and off campus.

Gordon claims it denied DeWeese-Boyd, who had been employed at the university since 1998, a promotion because of lack of scholarship. But even more importantly, the school argues the “ministerial exception” bars the court from hearing the case in the first place. The legal doctrine keeps courts out of disputes involving religious institutions and their employees. Courts developed it over time to protect religious liberty and prevent judicial entanglement in the internal affairs of churches and other religious organizations. But the breadth of the doctrine remains unclear.

In Our Lady of Guadalupe School vs. Morrissey-Berru last year, Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito wrote on the question for the majority, “What matters, at bottom, is what an employee does.” He said courts should give weight to the “religious institution’s explanation of the role of such employees in the life of the religion in question.”

During oral arguments, Becket attorney Eric Baxter, who represents Gordon, pointed to the school’s expectation that every professor integrate Christian faith with their discipline, saying 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.”

Hillary Schwab, the attorney representing DeWeese-Boyd, attempted to confine the ministerial exception to a narrow range of traditionally understood religious activities. “It’s clear she never led sermons, she never led chapel services, [and] she never was involved in any sort of religious teaching,” Schwab told the court.

Schwab also argued the school was not a religious school like the Catholic elementary school involved in Morrissey-Berru. But Jeffrey McAllister, another attorney representing the college, disagreed. “If Gordon is not a religious institution of higher learning, it is hard to imagine how any religious college could be,” he wrote.

The attempt to confine religion to a narrow set of religious activities is at the heart of the dispute, and one the court must reject, the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities said in a friend-of-the-court brief. “[T]he social-work course, the math course, and the English literature course are all taught and studied from a faith-based perspective,” the organization argues. “Faith is not a mere additive to the educational experience; it is the oxygen that gives it life.”


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Steve West

Steve is a legal correspondent for WORLD. He is a graduate of World Journalism Institute, Wake Forest University School of Law, and N.C. State University. He worked for 34 years as a federal prosecutor and is now an attorney in private practice. Steve resides with his wife in Raleigh, N.C. Follow him on Twitter @slntplanet.

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