A recent state court case raises questions about whether Christian colleges can determine who serves as a minister at their institutions.
The Background: The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ruled that while Gordon College is a religious college, an associate professor of social work at the school is “not a ministerial employee.”
Margaret DeWeese-Boyd, a tenured associate professor of social work at Gordon, filed a civil action against the college, its president, and a provost in 2017, claiming she was unlawfully retaliated against her for her vocal opposition to Gordon’s LGBT policies and practices.
Gordon College, a private, nondenominational Christian liberal arts college, said the ministerial exception, which prohibits government interference with employment relationships between religious institutions and their ministerial employees, barred the claims of the professor.
In making the decision, the court didn’t dispute that Gordon was a religious institution. At Gordon, all undergraduates must be able to describe their faith and must complete the core curriculum, which “explores the liberal arts and sciences from a Christian perspective.”
D. Michael Lindsay, the college’s president, testified: “[A]t Gordon there are no nonsacred disciplines. . . . Every subject matter that we pursue is informed by, shaped by, the Christian tradition.” The school’s handbook explicitly states that “faculty members are both educators and ministers to our students.”
Despite Gordon College’s being a Christian organization with a specifically religious mission, the court ruled that professors are not ministers. In the court’s ruling, the judge says, “The most difficult issue for us is how to evaluate [DeWeese-Boyd’s] responsibility to integrate her Christian faith into her teaching and scholarship as a professor of social work.”
Although the college provided clear evidence that it considers her a minister, the court came to a different conclusion: “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.”
What It Means: The decision by the Massachusetts court is baffling, considering recent Supreme Court rulings on this issue.
The ministerial exception is a legal doctrine that prohibits the application of anti-discrimination laws to religious institutions’ employment relationships with their ministers.
In its 2012 ruling in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School, the Supreme Court explicitly agreed that courts have long recognized “the existence of a ‘ministerial exception,’ grounded in the First Amendment, that precludes application of [Title VII and other employment discrimination laws] to claims concerning the employment relationship between a religious institution and its ministers.”
The Supreme Court in Hosanna–Tabor framed the issue of ministerial exception in a religious-employment lawsuit as “whether the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment bar such an action when the employer is a religious group and the employee is one of the group’s ministers.”
The Supreme Court found that “both Religion Clauses bar the government from interfering with the decision of a religious group to fire one of its ministers.”
Last year, the Our Lady of Guadalupe School case tested whether the ministerial exception could be applied to teachers and other roles that may not directly require performing religious duties. In a 7–2 ruling, the court held that the First Amendment’s Religion Clauses prevents certain employees of religious institutions from suing for employment discrimination.
Writing for the majority, Justice Samuel Alito said it would be a violation of the religious organization’s independence for the courts to consider teachers’ workplace discrimination claims.
“The religious education and formation of students is the very reason for the existence of most private religious schools, and therefore the selection and supervision of the teachers upon whom the schools rely to do this work lie at the core of their mission,” Alito wrote.
Gordon College made it abundantly clear that it considers its professors as serving in ministerial roles. The Massachusetts court overstepped its authority and exceeded its competence by determining that the court, rather than Gordon College, should determine who at the school qualifies as a minister.
“The ruling is deeply problematic because it allows the government to significantly overstep its authority based on a flawed understanding of Christian education,” say Jordan Wootten and Josh Wester of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.
“No one expects the government to have a nuanced or comprehensive understanding of the ways the Christian faith is applied to instruction in non-religious disciplines, such as social work or math or chemistry. But the principles of separation and free exercise exist precisely because the government does not need to understand these things to respect them and to recognize that they lie beyond the purview of the state.”