Gordon College Doesn’t Qualify For ‘Ministerial Exception’ From Professor’s Sexual Orientation Lawsuit, Massachusetts High Court Says

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Gordon College can’t claim a ministerial exception to shield the school from an anti-discrimination lawsuit brought by a former professor of social work, the state’s highest court has ruled.

The case may end up at the U.S. Supreme Court, since it touches on unresolved matters concerning a religious-liberty case the high federal court decided last year.

The Wenham school, which was founded by a Baptist pastor and identifies as non-denominational Christian, denied tenure in 2017 to Margaret DeWeese-Boyd, who had taught social work there since 1999. The associate professor sued the college and administrators in Essex Superior Court, claiming school officials denied the promotion because of “her protected activity opposing Gordon College’s discriminatory anti-LGBTQ+ policies and practices, her advocacy on behalf of LGBTQ+ individuals at Gordon College, and/or her gender,” according to a summary of her lower-court brief.

The college has sought to end her lawsuit by claiming that as a religious school it doesn’t have to follow state and federal anti-discrimination statutes in employment decisions because it has broad protection under the free-exercise-of-religion clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. In a comparable – but not wholly similar – case, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in July 2020 that two teachers at Catholic elementary schools in Los Angeles who were fired could not bring lawsuits against the schools under anti-discrimination statutes because as religious institutions the schools are entitled to make hiring and firing decisions as they see fit.

“When a school with a religious mission entrusts a teacher with the responsibility of educating and forming students in the faith, judicial intervention into disputes between the school and the teacher threatens the school’s independence in a way that the First Amendment does not allow,” the federal Supreme Court said last summer in the 7-2 majority opinion in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru.

But in the current Gordon College case, lawyers for the professor argued that Gordon is not a religious institution but rather a liberal arts school of higher education, and that the professor’s role teaching social work to students does not qualify as a ministerial activity.

The Massachusetts high court found this past week that while Gordon College “is a religious institution … the plaintiff … is not a ministerial employee” because her duties did not involve carrying out religious activities.

“It is our understanding that the ministerial exception has been carefully circumscribed to avoid any unnecessary conflict with civil law. In sum, we conclude that DeWeese-Boyd was expected and required to be a Christian teacher and scholar, but not a minister. Therefore, the ministerial exception cannot apply as a defense to her claims against Gordon,” Justice Scott Kafker wrote for the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in an opinion published Friday.

Lawyers for Gordon College have argued that every employee at the school is expected to fulfill the school’s Christian mission. Justice Kafker’s opinion seems to anticipate an appeal in the federal courts on that basis.

“We recognize that some of the language employed in Our Lady of Guadalupe may be read more broadly, in a way that would include every educator at a religious institution,” Kafker wrote. “As Gordon has stated, the integrative function applies to all teachers at the college, whether they teach computer science, calculus, or comparative religion.”

During oral arguments January 4, a lawyer for the college, Eric Baxter, said the social work professor got her job in part because of her profession of Christianity and that she incorporated Christian principles into her social work instruction. He said failing to represent Christian principles is not why the college’s president and provost denied her tenure.

“She was denied promotion … because she … had not published anything since 2008, and she was cited as not adequate … providing internal institutional service,” Baxter said (at 7:03 in the video of oral arguments).

He also argued that the school’s approach to social work had a religious aspect, and that the professor was acting “as a messenger for the faith” — which means the school qualifies for religious-freedom protection for its decisions about employees.

“When an employee plays a ministerial role, or has an important religious role, the ministerial exception bars the court from interfering in the employment decision regardless of the reason for the adverse employment action,” Baxter said (at 7:34 of the video).

A lawyer for the social work professor, Hillary Schwab, argued that Gordon College is not primarily an evangelical Protestant institution but rather a school with an evangelical Protestant outlook.

“Your honor, respectfully, the school does not incorporate evangelical teachings. It incorporates an evangelical perspective within the framework of academic freedom,” Schwab said during oral arguments (at 29:00 of the video). “The professors at Gordon College are expected to be experts in their field – and the field for Professor DeWeese-Boyd was social work. They are not expected to be experts in any sort of religious duties.”

Later during oral arguments, two Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court justices discussed what courts should and shouldn’t do in religion cases with the professor’s lawyer. An excerpt of the back-and-forth (which begins at 31:30 p.m. of the video of oral arguments) is below:


Justice Scott Kafker:  … We’re not religious experts. So how do we –? I just — I feel like we’re treading into dangerous territory here, if we don’t, if we don’t resp— — you know, if we start deciding what her secular aspects are and what her religious aspects are, in a school that doesn’t draw those distinctions.

Hillary Schwab:  Well, your honor, that’s precisely why the Supreme Court wisely focused on an employee’s duties, not the employee’s perspective. And the employee’s duties in this case, are teaching social work. Now, as to the —

Justice Scott Kafker:  But her duty is to teach social work, and integrate – and, and even, it sounds like proselytize, a little bit, in her teaching.  And social work has a component – you know, that, it is different from math. Again:  Isn’t she supposed to bring that religious perspective, those religious values, into how she’s teaching social work?

Hillary Schwab:  Your honor, no. There are no such requirements. And in fact, the bylaws’ guiding principle for the organization says is it is about education, not indoctrination. There is no requirement that any professor at Gordon College proselytize. Professor DeWeese-Boyd approaches her work from a Christian perspective, and the way she views that, as she states it, is to look at issues, and looking at their ethical and moral significance beyond just the —

Justice Elspeth Cypher:  But Counsel, that’s brings us right back to Justice Kafker’s problem. And that is that:  We can’t look at that and say “Oh, you know, that’s ministerial, and that’s not. This is partly your faith being infused and integrated, but that doesn’t count for ministerial work.” That’s really not what we can do.

Hillary Schwab:  Right, your honor, you’re absolutely right that you should not look at what she thinks. You should look at what she does. And the record does not include anything than teaching secular –


Gordon College has been roiled in recent years by divisions. Some want the school to re-emphasize its Christian identity by standing for traditional Christian moral principles, including the biblical teaching against same-sex sexual activity. Others disagree, seeing nothing wrong with homosexuality and emphasizing support for academic freedom.

Administrators and faculty members have occasionally clashed. In 2017, for instance, the faculty senate unanimously recommended tenure for DeWeese-Boyd, but the college president and provost refused to pass along the recommendation to the school’s board of trustees.

In May 2019, amid budget cuts, the school eliminated its social work department. DeWeese-Boyd’s LinkedIn page says she stopped working at Gordon College in August 2020.

Her lawsuit against Gordon has drawn attention. Eight friend-of-the-court briefs were submitted from entities reflecting the religious-secular ideological divide in the country.

Briefs were submitted in favor of Gordon College by Counsel for Christian Colleges and Universities; Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty; Religious Liberty Scholars; and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston.

Briefs were submitted in favor of the professor by American Association of University Professors; Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Action; Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School (also representing five other groups, including GLBTQ Legal Advocates and Defenders) and on behalf of Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey.

The state Supreme Judicial Court returned the case to Essex Superior Court, but a federal appeal by the college seems likely.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court case is Margaret DeWeese-Boyd vs. Gordon College & Others. It is dated Friday, March 5, 2021.