Massachusetts Court Says Associate Professor at Christian College Is Not a Minister
An associate professor at a Christian liberal arts college is not considered a minister and is therefore protected from discrimination during her employment, the Massachusetts Supreme Court has found.
Typically, the ministerial exception applies to employees of religious institutions who carry out the duties of a minister, such as teaching religion or religious texts, leading prayers or delivering sermons. The exception means that these employees are not subject to the same protections of civil law prohibiting employment discrimination based on things like race, religion, national origin, sex or sexual orientation.
Its purpose is to protect religious institutions from governmental interference with employment relationships, and as a result, uphold the separation of church and State spelled out under the first amendment in the United States Constitution. However, the scope of the ministerial exemption remains somewhat unclear, according to the Massachusetts Supreme Court decision.
Plaintiff Margaret DeWeese-Boyd is a tenured associate professor of social work at Gordon College, a private, nondenominational Christian liberal arts college in Wenham, Massachusetts. She was initially hired as an assistant professor in 1998, promoted to associate professor in 2004 and later approved for tenure in 2009.
In 2016, she applied for a promotion to full professor and was unanimously recommended to the position by the faculty senate, which noted her teaching effectiveness, contributions to scholarship and leadership as director of the social work practicum.
The following year, however, Gordon President D. Michael Lindsay and Provost Janel Curry decided not to forward the recommendation to the board of trustees, claiming a lack of scholarly productivity, professionalism, responsiveness and engagement on behalf of DeWeese-Boyd.
Although the letter did not include any references to religious matters or theological disagreement, DeWeese-Boyd brought a civil action against Gordon College, Lindsay and Curry in September 2017, alleging retaliation against her for her vocal opposition to Gordon’s policies regarding LGBTQ+ individuals.
She alleges Gordon retaliated on the basis of her association with LGBTQ+ individuals or on the basis of her gender by denying her application for promotion to full professor, despite the faculty senate’s unanimous recommendation. The defendants then filed a cross motion for summary judgment, claiming the ministerial exception barred DeWeese-Boyd’s claims.
On April 3, 2020, a Superior Court judge dismissed the defendants’ summary judgment motion, finding that Gordon is a religious institution but DeWeese-Boyd is not a ministerial employee.
On April 24, 2020, the same judge granted the defendants’ motion to report to the Massachusetts Appeals Court, alleging the summary judgment dismissal was incorrect, and the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court allowed Gordon’s application for direct appellate review.
‘Both Educators and Ministers’
Lindsay, who became president of Gordon after DeWeese-Boyd was hired, testified that when he interviews a faculty member, he “will liken joining Gordon College to joining a religious order,” according to the Massachusetts Supreme Court decision.
That said, formal religious training is not required for employment at Gordon, and although some professors have seminary degrees, they do not have different titles from other professors, according to the court decision.
The decision stated Gordon’s handbook divides professors’ basic responsibilities – the basis on which tenure and promotions are evaluated – into three categories: teaching, scholarly and professional activity, and institutional service. The faculty senate is responsible for making recommendations on applications for promotion and tenure.
In October 2016, Gordon added language to the handbook that states, “In the Gordon College context, faculty members are both educators and ministers to our students.”
This language was drafted by Meirwyn Walters, Gordon’s counsel, and the handbook did not previously use the term “minister” to describe faculty. Faculty were not informed of the change, according to the court decision. After they discovered the language, it was discussed at a faculty meeting in the fall of 2017.
The meeting minutes stated that multiple professors expressed “serious opposition” to the addition of the language due to concerns that it was inaccurate and misleading.
The Gordon chapter of the American Association of University Professors in a formal statement said that “adopting the language of ‘Minister’ in a presumed attempt to bring faculty within the scope of the Ministerial Exception at best effects a mere change of label while wrongly describing the faculty role within the College.”
On the other hand, Curry and Lindsay in their court testimony pointed to Gordon’s history, mission and tradition of integrating faith into education, likening joining Gordon to responding to a formal call to religious service. Both testified that this makes every faculty member, and likely every employee, ministerial – even janitorial and kitchen staff, according to the defendants. The defendants stated this is because employees “befriend students,” “model Christ-like behavior,” and “nurtur[e] the students’ faith commitments and maturity,” according to the court decision.
Limits of the Ministerial Exception
The Massachusetts Supreme Court found, however, that while Gordon employs Christians who are called to minister to others, this argument oversimplifies the question of whether the ministerial exception applies in this case.
It found that although Gordon identifies as both a Christian college and a liberal arts college, DeWeese-Boyd was first and foremost a professor of social work. She taught classes on sustainability and general social work practice and oversaw practicums but did not teach classes on religion, pray with her students or attend chapel with her students.
The court also found that DeWeese-Boyd’s formal title – associate professor of social work – does not indicate any religious position.
“The revised handbook does describe all faculty not only as educators, but also as ministers; that paragraph was, however, added to the handbook in October 2016 – eighteen years after DeWeese-Boyd was hired, and just two months before she was unanimously recommended for promotion to full professor,” the court decision said.
The Massachusetts Supreme Court instead found that DeWeese-Boyd’s responsibilities at Gordon differed from the ordained ministers or teachers of religion at primary or secondary schools in cases that have come before the state Supreme Court in the past. It added that claiming her work falls under the ministerial exception would be too broad of an application. “The integration of religious faith and belief with daily life and work is a common requirement in many, if not all, religious institutions,” the court decision said. “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.”
With this in mind, the court concluded that DeWeese-Boyd was required to be a Christian teacher and scholar, but not a minister, and the ministerial exception cannot apply as a defense to her claims against Gordon. The case, Margaret DeWeese-Boyd vs. Gordon College & others, was remanded for further proceedings consistent with the Massachusetts Supreme Court’s opinion.
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