At some point, the US Supreme Court will have to consider whether Christian college professors are legally ministers, and who decides that, and how, Justice Samuel Alito said in a statement on Monday.
But the case of a former social work professor suing Gordon College for denying her promotion is not quite right for those arguments—at least for now.
The court turned down Gordon’s appeal to have Margaret DeWeese-Boyd’s lawsuit dismissed based on the “ministerial exception,” which says that clergy are not protected by employment law, because that would be excessive government interference into religious matters. Alito, however, released a statement saying there are still concerns about how ministers are being defined legally.
“The preliminary posture of the litigation would complicate our review,” Alito wrote. “But in an appropriate future case, this Court may be required to resolve this important question.”
The statement was joined by three other conservative justices—Clarence Thomas, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett—signaling an interest in appeals from Gordon or other Christian colleges seeking exemption from antidiscrimination legislation.
For now, however, DeWeese-Boyd’s lawsuit against Gordon College can go forward in state court. She claims the school administration denied her promotion in 2017, against the recommendation of her department and the full faculty, because she critiqued the school’s stance on LGBT issues. Gordon argues it denied her promotion because she hadn’t done enough scholarship. The school also sought to have the case dismissed because it considers DeWeese-Boyd a minister.
Gordon revised its faculty handbook in 2016 to say that all professors are ministers. Professors have long been required to integrate faith into their teaching, showing students how Christian commitments relate to their academic disciplines.
D. Michael Lindsay, the former Gordon president who is also on CT’s board of directors, testified before a Massachusetts court that “there are no non-sacred disciplines” at Gordon. He said for faculty, joining Gordon should be like joining a religious order.
Becket vice president Eric Baxter, told CT the ministerial exception should apply to anyone whose work has a “religious function,” even if they’re not ordained and not considered a minister in any church.
“The phrase ‘ministerial exception’ is perhaps unfortunate,” he said. “The ministerial exception does not require you to be a minister. It applies to anyone doing an important religious function. I think maybe a better term would have been ‘important religious function.’”
The state supreme court, however, found that the school was collapsing the difference between Christians and Christian ministers.
“While it may be true that Gordon employs Christians, and ‘Christians have an undeniable call to minister to others,’” Justice Scott Kafker wrote, “this line of argument appears to oversimplify the Supreme Court test, suggesting that all Christians teaching at all Christian schools and colleges are necessarily ministers.”
The Massachusetts judge also worried that the college was asking for an expansion of the ministerial exception to the point of “eclipsing and elimination of civil law protection against discrimination.”
The president of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, representing DeWeese-Boyd before the Supreme Court, agreed.
“The ministerial exception was meant to ensure that houses of worship could freely choose their clergy,” Rachel Laser told Courthouse News Service. “It was never intended to be a free pass for any religious employer to discriminate against its entire workforce and sidestep civil-rights laws.”
John Bursch, senior counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, which also represents Gordon, said that kind of argument seems to deny that Gordon is a Christian college, entitled to First Amendment protections.
“Gordon’s professors are key to teaching the Christian faith to students, who choose to attend Gordon because they want to integrate their faith and learning,” he said. “And the First Amendment is clear: The government has no business telling a faith-based college how to exercise its faith.”
Alito, similarly, said, “I have doubts about the state court’s understanding of religious education.”
In Massachusetts, Gordon will still be allowed to argue that DeWeese-Boyd was, in fact, legally a minister. The two sides may, however, focus more on the specific details of the denied promotion, the metrics for measuring scholarship, and Gordon’s established standards for promoting professors.
If DeWeese-Boyd wins the lawsuit, Gordon could also appeal the case to the Supreme Court again.
Meanwhile, if any other Christian schools want to make the case that Christian college professors are ministers, there are four Supreme Court justices who would like to hear about it.