Supreme Court Fails to Clearly Define ‘Ministerial Exception’ in Gordon College Case

However, justices leave the door open for a future hearing of the case

Supreme Court Fails to Clearly Define ‘Ministerial Exception’ in Gordon College Case

However, justices leave the door open for a future hearing of the case

The U.S. Supreme Court has denied Gordon College’s appeal to dismiss the lawsuit of a former associate professor who claims the college discriminated against her because she disagrees with the school’s stance on LGBTQ issues. But conservative justices hinted the case might get a second look should the school lose the case in its home state of Massachusetts.

In 1999, Margaret DeWeese-Boyd was hired as an assistant professor of social work at Gordon College, a private Christian college in Wenham, Massachusetts. In 2009, she was promoted to associate professor with tenure, and in 2016, she applied for promotion to full professor.

After determining that DeWeese-Boyd’s performance fell short of the college’s expectations for faculty scholarship and institutional service, Gordon’s provost and president denied her the promotion. 

DeWeese-Boyd had also divulged that she no longer agreed with significant religious beliefs—specifically concerning LGBTQ issues—in the college’s covenantal documents that she was required to reaffirm each year as an employee.

Despite Gordon’s longheld and clearly defined belief that employees play an essential role in the distinctly Christian mission of the college, DeWeese-Boyd sued the school in state court on grounds of discrimination.

Gordon argued that it was protected by the “ministerial exception” drawn from the First Amendment. This exception allows religious organizations to make employment decisions for “ministers” based on shared beliefs without government interference.

“The faculty handbook states that Gordon College professors are both educators and ministers to students and that all professors are expected to promote an understanding of their disciplines from the perspectives of the Christian faith,” Alliance Defending Freedom lawyers pointed out.

But the state court offered a narrow definition of the “ministerial exception” that it said Gordon College had misapplied.  

Though the Supreme Court denied its review, the conservatives criticized the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court for its narrow ruling.

“The state court asserted that this [teaching] responsibility was ‘different in kind’ from the kind of religious education” in previous Supreme Court decisions, Justice Samuel Alito wrote in the majority opinion. “That conclusion reflects a troubling and narrow view of religious education. What many faiths conceive of as ‘religious education’ includes much more than instruction in explicitly religious doctrine or theology.

Alito was joined in the opinion by conservative Justices Clarence Thomas, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett. “Though the court recognized that [DeWeese-Boyd] was required to ‘integrate the Christian faith into her teaching, scholarship and advising,’ the court reasoned that this integrated teaching was ‘different in kind’ from religious instruction.”

Alito added: “Although the state court’s understanding of religious education is troubling, I concur in the denial of the petition for a writ of certiorari because the preliminary posture of the litigation would complicate our review. But in an appropriate future case, this Court may be required to resolve this important question of religious liberty.”

For now, however, DeWeese-Boyd’s lawsuit against Gordon College can go forward in state court. 

Photo: Courtesy of Alliance Defending Freedom

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