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Margaret DeWeese-Boyd v. Gordon College, D. Michael Lindsay, and Janel Curry, No. SJC-12988 (Mass. Sup. Ct. 2021)

In a great win for faculty at religious institutions, and consistent with the AAUP’s arguments in an amicus brief, the Massachusetts Supreme Court held that plaintiff Margaret DeWeese-Boyd is not a minister of defendant Gordon College for the purposes of the First Amendment “ministerial exception” and thus she was entitled to protection by Massachusetts employment laws. The AAUP amicus brief explained why the ministerial exception, which is intended to prevent government intrusion into a religious institution’s relationship with its ministers, does not apply to the typical faculty member like DeWeese-Boyd at a religious college. The court agreed, finding that the “ministerial exception” did not apply because, while Gordon College was a religious institution, DeWeese-Boyd was not a minister based on what “DeWeese-Boyd actually did, and what she did not do” as a faculty member.  

DeWeese-Boyd was hired on a tenure-track line as an assistant professor of social work at Gordon College in 1999 and was promoted to associate professor with tenure in 2009. In 2016, she applied for promotion to full professor. In late 2016, the faculty senate informed her in writing that it unanimously recommended her to Provost Curry for promotion to full professor. Provost Curry declined to follow that recommendation and DeWeese-Boyd’s promotion to full professor was denied by President Lindsay. DeWeese-Boyd alleges that she was denied promotion because of her outspoken criticism of Gordon’s policies and practices regarding LGBTQ issues. DeWeese-Boyd filed suit in the lower court asserting associational and gender discrimination under Massachusetts state law; violation of the Massachusetts Civil Rights Act; and breach of contract. On summary judgment, Gordon College asserted that DeWeese-Boyd’s claims were barred by the First Amendment ministerial exception, which precludes application of state employment laws to claims brought against a religious institution by its “ministers.” The lower court rejected this argument and, for purposes of the ministerial exception, found that while Gordon College is a religious institution, DeWeese-Boyd is not a “minister.”

Gordon College appealed to the Massachusetts Supreme Court and the AAUP submitted an amicus brief. The AAUP amicus brief, authored by AAUP general counsel Risa Lieberwitz, addressed the application of the “ministerial exception” to higher education institutions. The US Supreme Court has held that there is “a ‘ministerial exception,’ grounded in the First Amendment, that precludes application of [employment discrimination] legislation to claims concerning the employment relationship between a religious institution and its ministers.” Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church Sch. v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 565 U.S 171 (2012) and Our Lady of Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, 140 S. Ct. 2049 (2020). The Supreme Court has found that in certain instances teachers in primary schools may be considered “ministers” who would be covered by the ministerial exception. The amicus brief addressed interpreting the scope of the exception in higher education. It urged the Massachusetts Supreme Court “to consider the distinctive nature of higher education as a relevant factor in interpreting the scope of the ministerial exception in religiously affiliated institutions. In contrast to the parochial or religious elementary or secondary school context, faculty in colleges and universities—including religiously-based institutions like Gordon College—are provided with the academic freedom that is fundamental to higher education norms and practices.”

The brief also provided distinctive context to the Massachusetts Supreme Court regarding the academic norms and expectations of higher education faculty. It explained that “in higher education, the widely accepted professional standards of academic freedom have institutionalized the expectation that college and university faculty have control over the content of their course, the course materials, and the pedagogical methods.” Finally, the amicus brief analyzed the application of the ministerial exception considering the contrasting roles of faculty in religious primary and secondary schools and religiously affiliated colleges and universities. “The ministerial exception requires evidence that the college or university has adequately specified a faculty member’s religious job functions as a minister, to justify excluding the faculty member from exercising full employment rights. Where a college or university recognizes faculty academic freedom and independence in teaching or research, this will counter an assertion by that college or university that all its faculty members fall within the ministerial exception.”

The court’s decision echoed many of the AAUP’s arguments in its amicus brief regarding the application of the “ministerial exception” to higher education institutions. The court stated, “We begin, as Our Lady of Guadalupe instructs, with what DeWeese-Boyd did, and what she did not do. She was, first and foremost, a professor of social work. She taught classes on sustainability and general social work practice and oversaw practicums. DeWeese-Boyd was not required to, and did not, teach classes on religion, pray with her students, or attend chapel with her students, like the plaintiffs in Our Lady of Guadalupe, 140 S. Ct. at 2066, nor did she lead students in devotional exercises or lead chapel services, like the plaintiff in Hosanna-Tabor, 565 U.S. at 192.” After analyzing DeWeese-Boyd’s responsibilities the court held, “Having evaluated ’all relevant [material] circumstances,’ we conclude that a faculty member with DeWeese-Boyd's responsibilities at Gordon is significantly different from the ordained ministers or teachers of religion at primary or secondary schools in the cases that have come before the Supreme Court.”

The court was also not persuaded by Gordon’s unilateral decision to include the term “minister” in its faculty handbook and quoted the Gordon chapter of the American Association of University Professor’s response in its opinion, "We respectfully disagree with the designation of faculty as 'Ministers' in the most recent version of the Faculty Handbook. . . . 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. Attempting to shoehorn faculty into this employment category is at odds with our desire to live in a distinctive Christian community as 'Teacher-Scholars.'"