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Margaret DeWeese-Boyd v. Gordon College, D. Michael Lindsay, and Janel Curry, No. SJC-12988 (Mass. Sup. Ct. 2020) (appeal pending)

On December 14, 2020, the AAUP authored and filed an amicus brief in the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts in support of a lower court decision holding that plaintiff-appellee Professor Margaret DeWeese-Boyd is NOT a “minister” and thus was protected by Massachusetts anti-discrimination laws. Professor DeWeese-Boyd had sued Gordon College alleging that it violated Massachusetts discrimination law when it denied her a promotion due to her activity on LGBTQ issues. Defendant-Appellant Gordon College, a religiously affiliated institution, argued that it was exempt from employment discrimination law because it claimed DeWeese-Boyd was a “minister” within the First Amendment “ministerial exception.” The amicus brief used the AAUP’s well-established principles and standards guidance to the Massachusetts Supreme Court in applying the “ministerial exception” in the context of higher education institutions. 

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. In addition, DeWeese-Boyd asserts claims against Lindsay and Curry, individually for certain tort and breach of contract claims. On summary judgment, Gordon College asserted, and DeWeese-Boyd denied that the First Amendment ministerial exception applies to bar all DeWeese-Boyd’s claims. The lower court found that Gordon College is a religious institution for purposes of the ministerial exception but denied Gordon College’s motion for summary judgment based on the court’s finding that DeWeese-Boyd is not a “minister” for purposes of the ministerial exception. Gordon College appealed to the Massachusetts Supreme Court where the appeal is pending.

The AAUP amicus brief, authored by AAUP General Counsel Risa Lieberwitz, was filed in Margaret DeWeese-Boyd v. Gordon College, D. Michael Lindsay, and Janel Curry, No. SJC-12988 (Mass. Sup. Ct. 2020) (appeal pending) and addresses 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 & School v EEOC, 565 U.S. 171, 188 (2012). 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 addresses interpreting the scope of the exception in higher education. It urges 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. This context of higher education should be considered as an important factor to ensure that the ministerial exception is applied only to faculty who are required to perform specific religious functions that would meet the definition of a ‘minister.’”

The amicus provides distinctive context to the Massachusetts Supreme Court regarding the academic norms and expectations of higher education faculty,

In contrast, 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. “[B]y their very nature, college and postgraduate courses tend to limit the opportunities for sectarian influence by virtue of their own internal disciplines. Many church-related colleges and universities are characterized by a high degree of academic freedom and seek to evoke free and critical responses from their students.” Tilton, 403 U.S. at 686 (footnote omitted). Higher education faculty are experts in their particular academic discipline, such as Professor DeWeese-Boyd’s expertise in the academic discipline of social work, or other professors’ expertise in academic disciplines in the social sciences, humanities, and natural sciences. As the Superior Court found in the instant case, “[A]lthough DeWeese-Boyd was expected to integrate the principles and concepts that underlie the Christian evangelical tradition with her teaching, she had no religious duties and did not actively promote the tenets of evangelical Christianity.” DeWeese-Boyd v. Gordon College, 2020 Mass. Super. LEXIS 73, at 69. “At bottom, ‘[i]f [DeWeese-Boyd] was a minister, it is hard to see how any teacher at a religious school would fall outside the exception.’” Id. at 74 quoting, Richardson v. Northwest Christian Univ., 242 F. Supp. 3d 1132, 1145 (D. Or. 2017) (holding that an assistant professor of exercise science did not fall within the ministerial exception).  

Finally, the amicus brief analyzes 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.”