A social work professor at a Christian college in Massachusetts is not a “ministerial employee” and the college cannot claim a religious freedom exemption in its defense against allegations she was wrongly denied tenure for her LGBT advocacy and criticizing its policies she considers to be “anti-LGBTQ,” activities she said are protected in law, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled Friday.
 
The case concerns Gordon College, a non-denominational liberal arts school in Wenham, Mass. founded by a Baptist pastor.
 
The court on May 5 said that the college is a religious institution but that associate professor Margaret DeWeese-Boyd is “not a ministerial employee” as understood by U.S. law.
 
“Her duties as an associate professor of social work differ significantly from cases where the ministerial exception has been applied, as she 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,” said the ruling, which said these characteristics have been important factors in U.S. Supreme Court jurisprudence.
 
Rick Sweeney, vice president for marketing and external relations at Gordon College, reacted to the decision.
 
“We are pleased the court reaffirmed the religious mission of Gordon College in finding both that the College is a religious institution as well specifically concluding that the plaintiff ‘was expected and required to be a Christian teacher and scholar’,” said Sweeney, according to the Chronicle for Higher Education. “We respectfully disagree with the court’s finding that in this instance the professor was not subject to the ministerial exception.”
 
Sweeney said the college mission is “unchanged.”
 
“The foundational basis of Gordon’s educational experience has been and will continue to be the integration of faith and learning as a distinctly Christian institution,” he said. “We are grateful for the sacrificial ministry that our faculty and staff conduct every day at Gordon to mentor, serve, and educate our students in the Christian faith.”
 
The college “will be keeping all legal options open” in determining its next steps, Sweeney said. The court has ordered further hearings on the case.
 
The case did not rule on some of the allegations driving the lawsuit, like DeWeese-Boyd’s claim she was not promoted to full professor due to “her protected activity opposing Gordon College’s discriminatory anti-LGBTQ+ policies and practices, her advocacy on behalf of LGBTQ+ individuals at Gordon College, and/or her gender.”
 
DeWeese-Boyd has taught at the school since 1999. Her lawsuit made the case that she taught social work and performed no religious function at the college. She was evaluated as a social work professor, not a minister, and there is a difference between being a Christian scholar and being a minister. Faculty members do not see themselves as ministers, she argued, and for the purpose of the professor’s employment, the college is not a religious institution.
 
Her suit charged that the college artificially attempted to manufacture a ministerial role for faculty members. It cited a fall 2017 faculty meeting where the college general counsel said that the “minister” language was added to the handbook “to trigger judicial deference” to protect the college’s First Amendment rights.
 
In 2016 the college changed its faculty handbook to say that all professors are ministers. College president D. Michael Lindsay said in court testimony, “there are no non-sacred disciplines” at the college.
 
“The addition of this language to the handbook was part of an effort by defendants to insulate the college from liability through invocation of the ministerial exception,” the lawsuit said, adding, “the language was not added for any reason other than to bolster Defendants’ ministerial exception defense in this and other lawsuits.”
 
Her lawsuit rejected claims that she challenged the college’s evangelical Protestant beliefs, saying, “the record is silent.” It cited the college’s recognition that standards are traditionally discussed, debated, and argued, and its principle that each person at the college “may exercise the right of free judgment.” It cited the college protection of faculty freedom from “institutional censorship or discipline” and the freedom of both students and professors “to give expression to their beliefs.”
 
The college’s self-identity as a liberal arts college distinguishes itself from a seminary or Bible college. Its government filings characterize itself as an “arts/culture/humanities” or “higher learning” institution, not “religion-related” or “religious,” the lawsuit argued.
 
Justice Scott Kafker wrote in the decision that the college’s defense of its claimed religious exception appeared to oversimplify the Supreme Court decision. He questioned whether coaches, or food service workers, would qualify as ministers.
 
“The breadth of this expansion of the ministerial exception and its eclipsing and elimination of civil law protection against discrimination would be enormous,” he said.
 
Eric Baxter, attorney for Gordon College and vice president of the Becket legal group, argued, “there’s no question that plaintiff was teaching in a devotional manner and she herself acknowledged that.”
 
While he said the phrase “ministerial exception” is “perhaps unfortunate,” Baxter emphasized its relevance to the case. “The ministerial exception does not require you to be a minister. It applies to anyone doing an important religious function. I think maybe a better term would have been ‘important religious function,” he said, according to Christianity Today.
 
Hillary Schwab, the attorney for DeWeese-Boyd, said that the ministerial exception is and should be “tailored” because it allows employers “carte blanche to violate the anti-discrimination laws.” 
 
Many Catholic primary and secondary schools have sought to define teachers and other employees as “ministerial.” Some Catholic dissenting groups have explicitly opposed these exceptions when Catholic school teachers or church employees have violated conduct codes related to same-sex relationships or involvement in an out-of-wedlock pregnancy.
 
The Massachusetts Supreme Court decision compared the Gordon College situation to other cases which established a ministerial exception.
 
In the 2012 Hosanna-Tabor v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission decision, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with a Lutheran school’s exemption claim. The Lutheran teacher who had filed a lawsuit against the school was commissioned by a church to teach and to lead students in prayers. She took a minister’s housing allowance on her taxes.
 
In the 2020 U.S. Supreme Court case Our Lady of Guadalupe v. Morissey-Berru, Catholic teachers taught Catholic doctrine and took students to chapel, the Massachusetts court noted.
 
The court said the Gordon College professor did not do these things, Christianity Today reported.
 
In 2017, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a religious liberty guidance for the Trump administration that explicitly affirmed the right of religious organizations to “employ only persons whose beliefs and conduct are consistent with the employers’ religious precepts.” However, the effects of this and other documents in a Biden administration are unclear.