Fighting Discrimination

Court Says Religious Freedom Is Not An Excuse To Treat Someone Badly

  Rob Boston

A professor at an Ohio public university who doesn’t want to refer to a transgender student by her preferred pronouns because of his religious beliefs has lost in court.

Nicholas K. Meriwether, a teacher of religion and philosophy at Shawnee State University in Portsmouth, was approached by a transgender student in January 2018 who requested that he use feminine pronouns when referring to her. Meriwether balked and told the student he was not sure he could do that.

The student filed a complaint, and Meriwether was reminded to use the proper pronouns. He continued to press his case with university officials, and they backed the student.

“I am afraid my answer is the same that it has always been: Every student needs to be treated the same in all of your classes,” Roberta Milliken, at the time an acting dean at the school, told him.

Backed by Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian nationalist legal group that works to roll back LGBTQ rights and merge government with its narrow, fundamentalist version of Christianity, Meriwether sued. In a note to university officials, he asserted, “I am a Christian. As such, it is my sincerely held religious belief, based on the Bible’s teachings, that God created human beings as either male or female, that this gender is fixed in each person from the moment of conception, and that it cannot be changed.”

In a preliminary ruling, Magistrate Judge Karen L. Litkovitz of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio recommended dismissing the case.

Wrote Litkovitz, “[Meriwether’s] factual allegations fail to show that Shawnee State’s nondiscrimination policies were anything but neutral, generally applicable policies without a system of ad hoc exemptions. Plaintiff’s factual allegations do not support a claim that the policies were formulated or applied to target certain religious beliefs, or that defendants targeted and suppressed plaintiff’s religious beliefs by applying the nondiscrimination policies to him.”

Indeed, nothing in the university’s policies prevented Meriwether from going to the church of his choice, reading religious books, praying or holding whatever beliefs he wanted to about transgender people. He was, however, required to treat all of his students with dignity, decency and respect. This he declined to do.

Meriwether wanted to twist religious freedom and convert it into a device to treat someone badly. But that principle is too vital and important to be turned into a tool for rudeness and ill-mannered behavior. The court was right to tell him no.

P.S. Americans United is supporitng the Do No Harm Act, federal legislation that would ensure that religious freedom remains a shield to protect religious exercise and is not used as a sword to harm women, LGBTQ people, religious minorities and others. Learn more about this important bill here and urge your lawmakers to support it. .  

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