Commentary

A Flawed Ruling: The Massachusetts Supreme Court’s Decision against Gordon College

Recently, the Massachusetts Supreme Court unanimously decided against granting the ministerial exemption to Gordon College in their lawsuit with former professor Margie DeWeese-Boyd. In a summary of the court’s opinion, Judge Kafker concluded that DeWeese-Boyd performed “duties as an associate professor of social work” that “differ significantly from cases where the ministerial exception has been applied.” He expressed hesitancy to designate teachers a “minister within the meaning of the exception” for fear that it would be “significantly expanded beyond those employees currently identified as ministerial by the Supreme Court.” 

When reviewing the constitutional arguments made by the Court, I couldn’t help but notice multiple issues in their analysis of the case. Having studied not only this case, but also many other ministerial exemption rulings over the past several months, the logic employed by the highest justices in the state was perplexing. Contrary to the advice of the Supreme Court, the MA Supreme Court applied a rigid functional test when surveying the duties of DeWeese-Boyd; one in fact, that completely minimized several other important aspects of her position. Their handling of the “integration” issue is shaky at best, disastrously problematic at worst. On an element centrally integral to Gordon’s defense, the court reasoned that the SC has  “not specifically addressed the significance of the responsibility to integrate religious faith into instruction and scholarship that would otherwise not be considered ministerial.” Though facially true, a closer look into previous court precedent undermines this claim. 

Before I dive into the meat of the case, however, it is important I qualify what I am about to say.

Firstly, my opinion here has nothing to do with the merits of DeWeese-Boyd’s discrimination claim. If you want to know my thoughts, please reach out in person. What I write here is certainly no exposition of my beliefs on issues of LGBTQ equality and the like. This is solely a constitutional analysis on whether or not the ministerial exception should have been administered considering the facts. 

Secondly, before I discuss the Massachusetts Supreme Court decision, I’ll explain my thoughts on Gordon’s arguments. It is important to be fair. 

I think Gordon presented a very weak ministerial exception defense, despite my believing they should have won. Perhaps the most damaging thing they could have done for their court chances was to add within the Faculty Handbook that professors are both “teachers and ministers”. Admittedly, this was done to “to trigger judicial deference to protect our First Amendment rights.” Though this speaks to an unremittingly self-preserving motive – which is completely understandable – it is nonetheless incredibly dishonest, especially considering this change was conducted without the consent of the faculty. The school probably should have realized the needed changes for a strong defense lied not in superficially adding “minister” to their faculty handbook. Constitutionally speaking, the purpose of the ministerial exception is to protect religious institution’s autonomy to select “the individuals who play certain key roles.” If Gordon had simply invested in strengthening the extent of faith-based integration while also administering more rigid professor evaluations as to this requirement; their defense most certainly would have been stronger. They need to make absolutely clear that professors play “key roles” within the college.

Gordon’s attempt to apply for the ministerial exception was further weakened by their attempts to make a ministerial employee out of all their workers. Broad, generalized mission statements equivocating the lived-faith of regular employees with the religious duties of professors certainly did not help their case that faculty members perform “key roles”. If every staff member can be designated a “minister” for the purposes of the exception then truthfully the exception should not be expanded. I would agree with the DeWeese-Boyd’s lawyer on that point. 

With that said, I do not side against Gordon College in this case, despite the flaws of their defense. I believe that the job of a professor within the context of a Christian liberal arts school holds significant weight when considering their place within the institution. Religious school should carry the autonomy to make “internal management decisions that are essential to the institution’s central mission.” This involves the hiring and firing of their faculty without governmental interference, since  “courts are bound to stay out of employment disputes involving those holding certain important positions with churches and other religious institutions.” 

The Massachusetts Supreme Court, however, failed to see it this way. Though they acknowledge that Gordon College was a religious institution for the purposes of the exception, their analysis of DeWeese-Boyd ignored and minimized fundamental aspects of her position in light of this context. To this I’ll make three points: 

1 )

The court admittingly applied a “functional” approach when surveying DeWeese-Boyd’s duties as a professor. As to the integration issue, they concluded that “she did not teach religion, the Bible, or religious doctrine; did not lead her students in devotional exercises or chapel services; and was not required to pray or attend chapel with her students.” Furthermore, the court noted how in Hosanna-Tabor and Our Lady of Guadalupe “the religious instruction was specific and sectarian, and the teachers led prayers and religious rituals.” This, they reasoned, “provided context for, the Court’s more general statements about “educating young people in their faith, inculcating its teachings, and training them to live their faith.” This analysis is weak on multiple fronts, however. 

The reasoning within Our Lady of Guadalupe clearly defines the purpose and limits of the functional analysis. Though certain elements of its review were dispositive for Our Lady of Guadalupe School to gain the exception, none of them the Supreme Court considered “essential” for it to be applied. Our Lady of Guadalupe noted that “implicit in our decision in Hosanna-Tabor was a recognition that educating young people in their faith, inculcating its teachings, and training them to live their faith are responsibilities that lie at the very core of the mission of a private religious school.” This is a highly unspecific criteria that most certainly should be interpreted differently based on the context. What might be education of the faith in one school may look entirely different in another. 

The most problematic form of analysis on behalf of the MA Supreme Court lay in the determinative factors used to weigh DeWeese-Boyd’s ministerial status. They focused on the specific duties and functions present in the SC cases but absent in the Gordon College case. It is important to point out, however, that “integration” at a sectarian level is highly different from integration at a Christian liberal arts college. While the former consisted of prayer, denominational teaching, and consistent cultivation of student’s spiritual life (the teacher was a minister in the literal sense, essentially), at a school like Gordon College, integration according to the faculty handbook means that, 

Not only should faculty be able to explain current methodologies and theories of their disciplines to their students and colleagues, but they should continually explore how a Christian worldview enhances, redefines, or confronts their discipline’s preeminent practices and philosophical assumptions.

These duties were acknowledged by DeWeese-Boyd when she applied for her position. 

2)

Secondly, the MA court argued that the Supreme Court (to quote again), “has not specifically addressed the significance of the responsibility to integrate religious faith into instruction and scholarship that would otherwise not be considered ministerial.” This assertion is blatantly misleading. Though the SC has not specifically addressed the scholarship issue, Our Lady of Guadalupe was unequivocally clear as to how lower courts should deal with the broader issue of integration as a whole. In section C of the decision, Justice Alito affirms Justice Thomas’ concurrence from Hosanna-Tabor, an opinion suggesting that courts should “defer to a religious organization’s good-faith understanding of who qualifies as its minister” because ““[a] religious organization’s right to choose its ministers would be hollow . . . if secular courts could second-guess” the group’s sincere application of its religious tenets.” Furthermore, the second concurrence also affirmed by Alito asserted that the ministerial exception should apply “to any ‘employee’ who leads a religious organization, conducts worship services or important religious ceremonies or rituals, or serves as a messenger or teacher of its faith” (emphasis added). An integral element of ‘faith” within the context of Gordon College involved “imaging Christ in all aspects of their educational endeavors.” With the context of social work, this meant “integration and application of social work and Christian values” throughout the discipline. 

How does this integrative duty not apply to DeWeese-Boyd? This part of the handbook existed before the school added the word “minister” in 2016. How was she not a “teacher” of the faith? “Faith” in this context consists of the religiously significant principles and beliefs within Gordon’s Statement of Faith and Life and Conduct Statement. Just because she wasn’t espousing any denomination creed shouldn’t exempt her from holding ministerial status. It is clear that her job as a social work professor held a “key role” within the college as an institution. 

3)

The Massachusetts Supreme Court appeared to be heavily influenced by the slippery slope argument, stating that “the ministerial exception would be significantly expanded beyond those employees currently identified as ministerial by the Supreme Court” if they were to side with the college. Supposedly, “the number of employees playing key ministerial roles in religious institutions would be greatly increased.” However, this is simply untrue. I’ll be brief: the court only needed to narrowly rule that DeWeese-Boyd as a social work professor was eligible for the exception. At worst, this would only push the benchmark one step further to where all professors are “ministers”, however it wouldn’t apply to college staff who fall outside the educational context the professors are in. The material distinctions between both positions is substantially significant enough for the Court to be able to differentiate between those playing visibly clear religious roles and those who are not. Being a janitor is substantially different from the academic/spiritual functions performed by a faculty/professor. It was intellectually lazy for the court not to differentiate between the two, despite the College’s weak attempts to make all their staff fall under the exception (which was materially irrelevant to the case, as that fact contained nothing to do with DeWeese-Boyd’s position itself).

In conclusion, I believe the Massachusetts Supreme Court made substantial constitutional mistakes in ruling against Gordon College. It is my that hope the school appeals for their case to be heard in the US Supreme Court. If the court agrees to hear their arguments, hopefully the result won’t be the same.

The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors. They do not proport to reflect the opinions or views of the Gordon Review, editorial staff, or its members.

Categories: Commentary

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