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SJC: Christian college can’t claim former social work professor was minister in legal dispute

Gordon College, a private Christian liberal arts school in Wenham.Erin Clark for The Boston Globe/File 2019

The duties of a former social work professor at a Christian college in Wenham did not meet the legal definition of a religious minister at the school, meaning she was entitled to protections against workplace discrimination that are unavailable to ministers at faith-based institutions, the state Supreme Judicial Court ruled Friday.

The ruling concerns a dispute between instructor Margaret DeWeese-Boyd and Gordon College, a private Christian liberal arts school.

DeWeese-Boyd, who served as a professor of social work at Gordon for 18 years until she was denied a promotion to full professor in 2017, alleges in a civil lawsuit that the school “unlawfully retaliated against her for her vocal opposition to Gordon’s policies and practices regarding individuals who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer (or questioning), and others (LGBTQ+ persons), by denying her application for promotion to full professor, despite the fact that the faculty senate unanimously recommended her for the promotion,” said the 40-page ruling authored by Justice Scott L. Kafker.

Gordon and DeWeese-Boyd, Kafker wrote, had clashed in legal proceedings in Essex Superior Court over the question of whether the “ministerial exception,” which bars government interference in employment questions between religious institutions and their ministerial workers, applied to DeWeese-Boyd.

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The exception for ministers is based on US Supreme Court precedent holding that the First Amendment prohibits the government from dictating to faith communities who promulgates the teachings of their religions, according to the ruling.

“The plaintiff contends that she was [unlawfully] terminated on the basis of her association with LGBTQ+ persons or on the basis of her gender,” Kafker wrote. “If the ministerial exception applies [to DeWeese-Boyd], even if such allegations are true, the religious institution will be free to discriminate on those bases. The same would be true for racial discrimination or discrimination on the basis of national origin.”

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However, Kafker wrote, the SJC found that DeWeese-Boyd’s job description as a professor of social work did not meet the legal definition of minister, so the ministerial exception did not apply in her case.

“DeWeese-Boyd was not ordained or commissioned; she was not held out as a minister and did not view herself as a minister; and she was not required to undergo formal religious training, pray with her students, participate in or lead religious services, take her students to chapel services, or teach a religious curriculum,” Kafker wrote.

He added that DeWeese-Boyd’s job requirement to integrate the Christian faith into her teaching, scholarship, and advising was different “in kind” from prior cases that came before the Supreme Court, where the high court found certain employees of faith-based institutions did, in fact, fall under the ministerial exemption.

“In sum, we conclude that DeWeese-Boyd was expected and required to be a Christian teacher and scholar, but not a minister,” Kafker wrote. “Therefore, the ministerial exception cannot apply as a defense to her claims against Gordon,” which remain pending in Essex Superior Court.

Rick Sweeney, a Gordon spokesman, said in a statement that the college is pleased the SJC reaffirmed its religious mission in determining that the school is a religious institution, and that DeWeese-Boyd was expected to be a Christian teacher and scholar.

“We respectfully disagree with the Court’s finding that in this instance the professor was not subject to the ministerial exception,” Sweeney said. “Gordon’s mission remains 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. 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.”

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He said the college wouldn’t comment further Friday since the civil litigation remains pending, and that Gordon will keep “all legal options open in determining the best next steps forward.”



Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.