June 22, 2018

College, DeWeese-Boyd File Arguments in Lawsuit

Essex County Superior Court. Creative Commons License.

Katie Simpson (‘20) & Collin Hall (’21)
Editor in Chief & News Editor

Lawyers for Gordon College and Margaret Deweese-Boyd, a social work professor suing the college over its refusal to promote her last year, laid out arguments in recent court filings obtained by the Tartan at the Essex County Superior Court in Lawrence.

DeWeese-Boyd, a currently tenured Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology and Social Work, alleges that she was denied promotion to Full Professor on the basis of her criticisms of Gordon’s policies regarding “homosexual practice.” Part of the controversy lies in the fact that she was denied promotion despite the unanimous approval of the Faculty Senate that was in place at the time. All of its members resigned in April 2017.

More than 200 pages of documents reviewed by the Tartan were submitted by lawyers for DeWeese-Boyd and Gordon in advance of a hearing scheduled for June 19.

At its core, this lawsuit is a First Amendment case. Deweese-Boyd argues that the denial of promotion violated her First Amendment rights to voice her opinions. Gordon argues that it is within its First Amendment rights as a religious institution to make employment decisions on the basis of an employee’s personal expressions, and this happen in a lot of cases, where the victims doesn’t benefit, including cases of corporate lawsuits or road accidents, which is why is important to get the right lawyers to benefit your cases, such as a Atlanta Motorcycle Accident Attorney who are experts in this area.

Both sides focus on whether Gordon has a right to invoke the ministerial exemption recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court in its decision in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The case upheld the school’s right to fire a narcoleptic teacher because she had received religious training and held herself out as a minister.

Essex County Superior Court in Lawrence, MA. Courtesy of A. Boynton, Creative Commons License.

DeWeese-Boyd’s lawyer wrote in a memorandum filed on March 26: “ [the College’s] failure to demonstrate anything other than that Professor DeWeese-Boyd is both a Christian and a professor of a secular subject (social work) is the death knell for the ‘ministerial exemption’ defense.”

DeWeese-Boyd also argues that: “Massachusetts has a compelling interest in preventing discrimination against LGBTQ+ individuals. Defendants do not need to agree with this interest, and they can continue to hold onto their homophobic policies, but that does not give them the right to willfully ignore the anti-discrimination laws.”

On the issue of “expressive association,” Deweese-Boyd’s lawyer wrote: “In this regard, it bears noting that Defendants’ motion exploits the fallacy that, because it is an evangelical Christian college, it must espouse anti-LGBTQ+ views.”

DeWeese-Boyd’s lawyer, Hillary Schwab, wrote: that “Professor DeWeese-Boyd’s responsibilities as a professor are secular,” and 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.”

Hillary Schwab added in an email exchange with the Tartan this week:

“Gordon College is seeking to expand the ministerial exception far beyond what was originally intended, to apply even to all employees at institutions such as Gordon College. Gordon’s interpretation of the ministerial exception would mean that Gordon College and other similar institutions would have carte blanche to discriminate against faculty and students for any reason, including gender, race, religion etc., as well as advocacy on LGBTQ+ issues. The position is ironic, because the college is essentially saying that its Christian mission gives it the right to treat people poorly, when in fact one would hope that the college’s Christian ideals would cause it to be more compassionate, especially to disenfranchised groups.”

She continued: “We believe that the law is on our side on this issue- that the ministerial exception does not extend to permit discrimination against faculty members such as Professor DeWeese-Boyd.”

“As for free speech, there is absolutely a concern that a college’s stated position that it can discriminate against protected groups and can retaliate against people for advocating against such discrimination will have a chilling effect on community members’ ability to speak up for what they believe in.”

Gordon asserts that, as a religious institution, all faculty at the school are ministers under the ministerial exemption. If all faculty are in fact ministers, decisions regarding their employment may be made on the basis of differing belief, Gordon argues. Courts created the ministerial exemption to protect the internal integrity of any given religious institution’s right to self-governance, free from government interference ability to protect its espoused truth.

Gordon argues that DeWeese-Boyd’s case should be dismissed entirely on the basis of the college’s First Amendment rights. Even if everything DeWeese-Boyd says is factual, and she was fired over her stances on LGBTQ+ issues and homosexual conduct, the college was well within rights to do so.

“At its foundation, this case is an effort by Plaintiff to force Gordon to abandon its evangelical Christian beliefs and practices. The First Amendment prohibits exactly what Plaintiff is trying to do here, and Defendants therefore are entitled to judgement [in the college’s favor] on the pleadings,” the College argued in a memorandum.

Rick Sweeney, Vice President for Marketing and External Relations, told the Tartan this week:

“We would still prefer to find a way to resolve this case without further litigation. But the larger issue is that this case addresses important First Amendment protections afforded to religious organizations of all types, including Christian colleges and universities. By preserving these safeguards from government interference, Christian colleges and universities can advance their unique contributions to the wider world of higher education. A significant portion of that stems from the idea that our employees are not just working at a job, but they are ministering to Gordon’s students. As such, Gordon must be able to hire faculty and staff for the unique mission of ministering to our students through teaching, mentorship, and institutional service. We are grateful that the Courts have consistently found that First Amendment protections are the surest way to preserve the unique contributions of a place like Gordon. And we will work tirelessly to ensure these protections remain, not only for Gordon but for those who work at and are served by faith-based organizations around the nation.”

The first set of oral arguments will be heard on June 19 in Lawrence. At this hearing, the college hopes to prove in court that there is fair grounds for dismissal based on its First Amendment rights. The judge could take weeks or months to decide.

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