When a former associate professor was denied a promotion despite recommendations for one in 2017, she immediately filed a complaint against the school for discrimination based on her advocacy of the LGBT community.
Now The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court must decide whether an evangelical Christian higher education institution can lawfully refuse a promotion based on a professor’s beliefs.
On Jan. 4, the highest court heard arguments virtually over a lawsuit filed against Gordon College by Margaret DeWeese-Boyd. The issue is about whether or not the school can deny the promotion by citing the “ministerial exception,” a legal principle that allows religious bodies to choose their own ministerial staff with exemption from employment discrimination law, according to the Christian Post.
The attorney representing the school, Eric Baxter, argued in his opening remarks that the exception applied to DeWeese-Boyd's employment since she was “expected to undertake certain religious obligations.”
“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,” said Baxter according to the Christian Post. He also 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.”
However, the attorney representing DeWeese-Boyd, Hillary Schwab, argued that the U.S. Supreme Court’s rule on ministerial exception was that “what matters is what an employee does.”
“And what did Professor DeWeese-Boyd do?” Schwab asked, according to the Christian Post. “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,” referencing the 2020 Supreme Court decision in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru.
In that decision, the Supreme Court ruled that two California Catholic schools can classify their religious teachers as ministers and not be held to the standards of state anti-discrimination laws.
According to the Christian Post, Schwab pointed out that 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 technically a religious school since the college provides a liberal arts education and “does not solely focus on spiritual instruction.”
“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,” said Schwab according to the Christian Post.
Gordon College argued for the ministerial exception and also claimed that DeWeese-Boyd “lacked sufficient scholarly accomplishments,” according to the Christian Post.
“It was because she had not performed any scholarship, she had not published anything since 2008, and she was cited as not [adequate to perform] within providing internal institutional service,” noted Baxter as reported by the Christian Post.
In 2017, the entire seven-member faculty senate at Gordon College resigned after DeWeese-Boyd was denied the promotion.
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 in the case details. “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.”
The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston submitted an amicus brief in the case, warning that the court's decision conflicted with the First Amendment, according to the Christian Post.