The U.S Supreme Court has denied Gordon College’s petition to decide whether the school is eligible for the ministerial exemption in its lawsuit with Margaret DeWeese-Boyd, but also expressed a willingness to take on the case in the future, noting that important religious liberty questions have yet to be resolved.
The lawsuit between Gordon College and former sociology professor Margaret DeWeese-Boyd has been ongoing for over four years. It first started in 2017, when DeWeese-Boyd sued the school after being denied full professorship for opposing policies she alleged were discriminatory against LGBTQ+ identifying individuals.
Gordon College asked the court for a summary judgment on the First Amendment ministerial exemption, which is designed to protect religious institutions from being sued by employees who perform ministerial functions. Gordon has argued that DeWeese-Boyd’s responsibility consisted of “educating and forming students in the faith….such that the ministerial exception applies and bars her claims.” DeWeese-Boyd contests that she was a ministerial employee, claiming that her “role and responsibilities at Gordon College do not differ from those of a professor in a similar field at a non-Christian college.” Her lawyer also argued that Gordon College was a liberal arts school with a religious character, and thus not a religious institution applicable for the ministerial exemption.
The Massachusetts Supreme Court agreed to hear the case and decided in favor of DeWeese-Boyd’s first argument, while rejecting the second. According to the Court, DeWeese-Boyd “did not teach religion or religious texts, lead her students in prayer, take students to chapel services or other religious services, deliver sermons at chapel services, or select liturgy, all of which have been important, albeit not dispositive, factors in the Supreme Court’s functional analysis.”
After receiving the ruling, Gordon immediately appealed to the Supreme Court.
In the statement written by Justice Samuel Alito and joined by Justices Thomas, Kavanaugh, and Barrett, Gordon College’s writ of certiorari was denied “because the preliminary posture of the litigation would complicate our review.” Alito, however, expressed a skepticism of the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruling. “What many faiths conceive of as “religious education”,” he said, “includes much more than instruction in explicitly religious doctrine or theology.” In fact, “many religious schools ask their teachers to “show students how to view the world through a faith-based lens,” even when teaching nominally secular subjects.” The court’s ruling “reflects a troubling and narrow view of religious education.” For these reasons, he concluded, “I have doubts about the state court’s understanding of religious education and, accordingly, its application of the ministerial exception.”
Alito expressed an openness to take on the case if DeWeese-Boyd were to win her lawsuit in the lower courts. If that were to happen, he said, “there is nothing that would preclude Gordon [College] from appealing at that time, including seeking review in this Court when the decision is actually final.”
Though the Supreme Court decision is a disappointment for Gordon in the short-term, it does leave the door open for a favorable ruling in the future.
DeWeese-Boyd’s lawsuit against Gordon College is now set to be heard in the Essex Superior Court. When exactly is unknown at this time.
Categories: Student Life