Ed Briefs: Faculty Are Not Ministers in Discrimination Case at Massachusetts Religious College

Professor Questioned College’s LGBTQ+ Policies in Promotion Denial; SJC Applies Two Recent Supreme Court Decisions on Ministerial Exception

“Frost Hall, Gordon College” by d4vidbruce is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Last month, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court declined to apply the ministerial exception and shield a religious college from liability in a faculty member’s discrimination claim.

In DeWeese-Boyd v. Gordon Coll., No. 12988 (Mass. Sup. Jud. Ct. Mar. 5, 2021), the court heard argument on “the ministerial exception, which prohibits government interference with employment relationships between religious institutions and their ministerial employees.” See DeWeese-Boyd, at 5–6 citing Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & Sch. v. Equal Employment Opportunity Comm’n, 565 U.S. 171, 188–189 (2012).

Retaliation Claim Followed Promotion Denial

Professor Margaret DeWeese-Boyd is a tenured associate professor of social work at Gordon College, a private Christian liberal arts college in Wenham, Massachusetts. Gordon denied DeWeese-Boyd’s application for a promotion to the rank of full professor, and in 2017 DeWeese-Boyd sued the institution for retaliation under the Commonwealth’s expansive discrimination laws (M.G.L. Ch. 151B et seq.) and for related statutory and contract claims. She claimed that the College denied her application based on “her vocal opposition to Gordon’s policies and practices regarding individuals who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer (or questioning), and others (LGBTQ+ persons)… despite the fact that the faculty senate unanimously recommended her for the promotion.” DeWeese-Boyd, at 5.

The professor and the College both sought summary judgment on the ministerial exception, which Gordon alleged as an affirmative defense to the retaliation claim. Last year, the trial court allowed the plaintiff’s motion, concluding that Gordon is a religious institution but DeWeese-Boyd was not a ministerial employee. The SJC accepted direct review on appeal.

Applying Recent Ministerial Exception Decisions

In its 2012 decision in Hosanna-Tabor, the Supreme Court held that the ministerial exception is “not limited to the head of a religious congregation” at an institution but expressed reluctance toward adopting a “rigid formula” to determine when the exception applies. 565 U.S. at 190. The Court allowed the ministerial exception to be applied to the employee in that matter, a “Minister of Religion, Commissioned” at an Evangelical Lutheran church and school, focusing on “the formal title given [the employee] by the Church, the substance reflected in that title, her own use of that title, and the important religious functions she performed for the Church.” Id. at 177, 191-192.

Last year, the Court revisited the ministerial exception in Our Lady of Guadalupe Sch. v. Morrissey-Berru, 140 S. Ct. 2049 (2020). The Court also allowed a ministerial exception for two employees in that matter, Catholic schoolteachers that sued following their dismissals. The Court reasoned that while the teachers’ “titles did not include the term ‘minister,’ and they had less formal religious training [than the employee in Hosanna-Tabor], … their core responsibilities as teachers of religion were essentially the same.” 140 S. Ct. at 2066.

Here, the SJC found that Professor DeWeese-Boyd “was, first and foremost, a professor of social work. She taught classes on sustainability and general social work practice and oversaw practicums. DeWeese-Boyd was not required to, and did not, teach classes on religion, pray with her students, or attend chapel with her students, like the plaintiffs in Our Lady of Guadalupe, 140 S. Ct. at 2066, nor did she lead students in devotional exercises or lead chapel services, like the plaintiff in Hosanna-Tabor, 565 U.S. at 192.” DeWeese-Boyd, at 26.

The SJC further found that, had the Supreme Court intended to simply limit inquiries into whether a Christian school’s requirement that staff follow a Christian faith — which Gordon argued carries “an undeniable call to minister to others,” the Court would not have established the two-prong test in Our Lady of Guadelupe. Id. at 30. DeWeese-Boyd examined Christian faith principles in the context of her scholarship and course syllabi on social work, but was not required to lead students in prayer or otherwise teach religious doctrine. Id. at 27–28, 30. Given these distinctions, the SJC ruled that DeWeese-Boyd did not meet the requirements for the ministerial exception, and her discrimination suit against Gordon could move forward.

Ministerial Exception Remains Limited

The ministerial exception will remain narrow for employees at religious institutions in Massachusetts and perhaps beyond as courts continue to adapt and refine the recent Supreme Court decisions on this subject.

Practically speaking, the SJC’s decision is not surprising given that Gordon’s attempt to assert the ministerial exception as a shield from liability would have significantly expanded the scope beyond ““individuals who play certain key roles” in a religious institution.” Id. at 38, citing Our Lady of Guadalupe, 140 S. Ct. at 2060. Given the recent conservative turn at the Supreme Court, it was notable that the SJC cited Justice Alito’s concurring opinion in Hosanna-Tabor — wary than an expansive interpretation “would also change the existing understanding of those “personnel who are essential to the performance” of the religious instructions, services, and rituals.” Id., citing 565 U.S. at 199.

Michael Loconto is a Boston-based attorney and consultant and former general counsel for a small liberal arts college. Mike helps school administrators think through regulations and compliance in human resources, finance, student affairs and academics. If you like what you read, follow Mike on Medium and subscribe through Substack.