Professor Margaret DeWeese-Boyd was denied promotion to full professor after eighteen years of work at Gordon College based on her gender and her opposition to the school’s anti-LGBTQ policies. While refusing someone a promotion for those reasons would normally represent unlawful employment discrimination, the College—a private, nondenominational Christian school—has argued that DeWeese-Boyd was a “minister,” and so, under a legal doctrine known as the “ministerial exception,” the school cannot be held liable for its decision. AU is representing Professor DeWeese-Boyd because Gordon College’s position would, if accepted, lead to a dramatic expansion of the ministerial exception doctrine, which is meant to protect choices of vital preachers and teachers of the faith. The ministerial exception should not and does not apply to social-work professors like DeWeese-Boyd.
Professor DeWeese-Boyd taught courses on general social work practice, social policy, statistics and research methods, and community and sustainability. She also served as the director of the social-work program and the social-work practicum. In her role, DeWeese-Boyd never taught religion or bible studies, never prayed with her students, and did not hold herself out as a minister. Though, like all professors at Gordon College, DeWeese-Boyd was required to affirm Gordon’s statement of faith, abide by its standard of conduct, and engage in teaching from a “Christian perspective,” she was not required to provide spiritual guidance or instruction to students, to lead prayer, or to participate in or attend campus chapel services.
In 2016, eighteen years after DeWeese-Boyd started at Gordon College, the school added language to its handbook for the first time describing faculty members as “both educators and ministers.” But several faculty, including DeWeese-Boyd, objected to the change and argued that it did not accurately describe or represent their function at the school. DeWeese-Boyd’s role as a social work professor, for example, simply was not a vital one of teaching or preaching the faith, which is how previous legal cases have described employees who can fairly be categorized as ministers and are covered by the ministerial exception. In fact, the college even implied that the change to the handbook was an intentional effort to shield it from liability.
That same year, DeWeese-Boyd applied for a promotion to full professor. Although the faculty senate unanimously recommended her for the promotion, the president and provost declined to forward the recommendation to the board of trustees. DeWeese-Boyd filed a complaint in Massachusetts state court, claiming that Gordon’s refusal to forward the recommendation was unlawful discrimination based both on her gender and on her criticism of the school’s anti-LGBTQ policies. Both the state trial court and state Supreme Judicial Court rejected the College’s argument that the ministerial exception should bar her claims. In August 2021, Gordon College asked the United States Supreme Court to review the case.
AU then joined DeWeese-Boyd’s existing counsel, Fair Work P.C., and, in November 2021, filed a brief at the Supreme Court explaining why the Court should not take the case. Not only would review at that stage in the litigation have been procedurally inappropriate, but Gordon College had essentially asked the Court to overturn its previous ministerial-exception rulings that used actual job duties, not documents like handbooks, to categorize employees as ministers (or not). Allowing such a dramatic expansion of the ministerial exception doctrine would have severely undermined bedrock anti-discrimination laws for tens of thousands of employees across the country and potentially many more. In February, the Supreme Court agreed not to take the case, meaning Margaret can move forward with her civil-rights claims.