The state’s highest court has agreed to hear a claim by Gordon College that an associate professor, who sued the Christian school after she was denied a promotion, can be considered a “ministerial employee” and thus not covered by anti-discrimination laws.
The case will be the first time the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court takes up a discrimination case involving a religious school since the U.S. Supreme Court broadened the definition of ministerial employees in a 7-2 ruling last July.
In that case, the court concluded that two parochial school teachers in the Los Angeles Roman Catholic Archdiocese could not pursue employment discrimination claims because their role as teachers included duties like “faith formation” in their students, and that any governmental interference in the employer-employee relationship would violate the First Amendment.
Margaret DeWeese-Boyd, of Georgetown, who had taught at the Wenham college for more than two decades, sought to be promoted to professor in 2016. Despite a vote by the faculty senate to recommend that she be given the full professorship, the school administration turned down her application.
DeWeese-Boyd and her attorneys believe that the school was retaliating for her criticism of the campus’ anti-LGBTQ policies, including leading a petition drive and speaking on the issue at faculty meetings, after the school’s president, D. Michael Lindsay, signed onto a letter in 2014 asking then-President Barack Obama to include a religious exemption in an order banning discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
The school maintains that she had not maintained an acceptable level of scholarly productivity and that her “professionalism and follow-through” on projects that she was not passionate about was “lacking.”
However, in its response to the lawsuit, the college also maintained that regardless of the reason for DeWeese-Boyd not receiving a promotion, the courts do not have any right to review that decision because, they say, their faculty members are essentially, ministers. They filed a response asserting that ministerial exception as a defense.
The school also says in its filings that DeWeese-Boyd understood her role in ministering to students at the school.
Not so, said her attorney, Hillary Schwab. In her brief to the SJC, she argues that DeWeese-Boyd never performed any type of ministerial duties.
When DeWeese-Boyd, who holds a divinity degree but was not a minister, applied to the school to teach social work, the school stressed that it was a “liberal arts college” with a “Christian character,” not a Bible college or seminary.
In December, the two sides were in court. DeWeese-Boyd asked the judge to dismiss the school’s defense of ministerial exception while the school wanted the judge to dismiss the case.
Lawrence Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Karp ruled in May, finding that Gordon College is a religious institution, but that DeWeese-Boyd had no religious duties, was not required to preach, and held no religious title, and that therefore, she could make a legal claim of employment discrimination. The college appealed.
Lawyers for the school did not return a call seeking comment on Friday, but the school, through a spokesman, dismissed the allegations in 2017 as “baseless,” an “attempt to harm the college,” and “offensive.”
Last year, DeWeese-Boyd lost her job when the school closed down its social work program, her lawyer said.
Arguments in the case at the SJC are scheduled for Jan. 4.