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Court sides with professor in Gordon College ‘ministerial exception’ case

The “ministerial exception” does not apply to an associate professor of social work at a private Christian liberal arts college, and she should be allowed to pursue her claims that the school unlawfully retaliated against her for her vocal opposition to the school’s LGBTQ+ policies, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has decided.

The SJC based its March 5 decision on the fact that the duties of Margaret DeWeese-Boyd, a now-former associate professor of social work, differed significantly from those in cases in which the ministerial exception has been applied. The court had heard arguments in the case on Jan. 4.

DeWeese-Boyd did not teach religion or religious texts, lead her students in prayer, take students to chapel services or other religious services, deliver sermons at chapel services, or select liturgy.

These factors have been “important, albeit not dispositive,” in the functional analysis articulated by the U.S. Supreme Court, initially in its 2012 decision in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v. E.E.O.C., and most recently in the 2020 case Our Lady of Guadalupe Sch. v. Morrissey-Berru.

However, the SJC noted that the Supreme Court has not specifically addressed the issue presented by DeWeese-Boyd v. Gordon College, et al.: “the significance of the responsibility to integrate religious faith into instruction and scholarship that would otherwise not be considered ministerial.”

The court found that it was undisputed that such an integrative responsibility was part of DeWeese-Boyd’s duty and function as a social work professor at a nondenominational religious institution. The court added that it was “less clear” whether DeWeese-Boyd had been required to take on the role of a “spiritual mentor” for her students.

“If this integration responsibility is sufficient to render a teacher a minister within the meaning of the exception, the ministerial exception would be significantly expanded beyond those employees currently identified as ministerial by the Supreme Court,” Justice Scott L. Kafker wrote on behalf of the court.

Kafker noted that Gordon has recently attempted to describe all of its faculty, and even all of its employees, as ministers, over the objection of the faculty itself.

“It is our understanding that the ministerial exception defined by the Supreme Court is more circumscribed,” he wrote.

Theoretically, that “understanding” could be tested if Gordon College decides to petition the Supreme Court for further review.

In applying the Our Lady of Guadalupe test, the SJC determined that DeWeese-Boyd’s title and training did not “provide decisive insight into resolving the difficult question of whether she was a minister.”

The court also noted that it was clear that DeWeese-Boyd did not view herself as a minister, “either formally or informally.” Instead, she had been part of the group of professors opposed to the addition of “minister” to their job descriptions in the college’s handbook because they viewed it as wrongly describing their role.

The SJC said that it recognized that a case “need not mirror” Hosanna-Tabor and Our Lady of Guadalupe in order for the ministerial exception to apply.

“Here, however, the facts are materially different,” the court concluded.

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