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Justices Decline to Revisit Who Is a Minister Under Job Bias Law

Feb. 28, 2022, 3:17 PM

A Massachusetts religious college failed to convince the U.S. Supreme Court to review a state court ruling that a former teacher can sue for alleged job bias because she wasn’t a “minister,” with Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. issuing a statement indicating the court may be interested in reviewing the question later in the case.

The justices’ denial Monday of Gordon College’s petition for review means Margaret DeWeese-Boyd can pursue her lawsuit claiming she was denied promotion to full professor in 2016 because she is a woman and for speaking out against the college’s policies and practices regarding LGBTQ+ individuals.

It leaves in place a March 5 Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruling that rejected the Wenham-based college’s bid to quash the suit under the “ministerial exception” developed under the First Amendment’s free exercise clause.

The ministerial exception is a judge-created doctrine that protects the autonomy of religious organizations when deciding who serves as ministers and was previously addressed by the justices in 2012 in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v. EEOC and in 2020 in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru.

Alito said he only concurred in the denial of Gordon College’s bid for review “because the preliminary posture of the litigation would complicate review.” The state supreme court’s cramped view of the reach of the ministerial exception, however, is “troubling,” he said.

Though acknowledging DeWeese-Boyd’s obligation to integrate the Christian faith into her teaching, advising, and scholarship, the Massachusetts justices said that was a different type of responsibility than the religious education the Supreme Court has found in prior cases is shielded by the mininsterial exception, Alito said.

But “many faiths” consider teachings beyond instruction in religious doctrine and theology to be part of a religious education, he said.

Justices Clarence Thomas, Brett M. Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett joined Alito’s statement.

Gordon College said in seeking review that allowing the Massachusetts’ top state court’s ruling to stand “will have a devastating impact” on religious schools, undermining the very purpose for their existence.

It and similar schools exist to inculcate “the next generation” of their faith’s adherents in their religion’s tenets and requirements as part of the students’ “intellectual formation,” the college said.

DeWeese-Boyd agreed to abide by the college’s “Religious Life and Conduct” statement when she sought to be hired in February 1998, the school said. She promised to integrate religion into her teaching and reiterated that promise in her 2016 application for full professorship, it said.

Yet she admitted in her lawsuit that she no longer agrees to two central beliefs in the religious-life statement, the college said. She was rejected for full professorship because of her deficient scholarship, institutional service, and professionalism, it said.

That was a judgment the First Amendment requires courts to respect, the school said.

The state court’s rejection of the ministerial exception in DeWeese-Boyd’s case conflicts with Hosanna-Tabor and Our Lady of Guadalupe by devaluing “the profound importance” of Gordon faculty integrating the evangelical Christian faith into their teaching, the school said.

The justices should take the opportunity to revisit a question reserved in Our Lady of Guadalupe and hold that courts must defer to religious organizations’ views on who is a minister, it said.

There is also a conflict among U.S. courts whether teachers at religious schools who integrate faith into their teaching are ministers, Gordon College said.

DeWeese, in opposing the college’s bid for Supreme Court review, said her actual job responsibilities as a professor of social work “lacked the hallmarks of one who plays a significant role in preaching or teaching the faith” of her employer.

The justices also lacked jurisdiction to review the denial of Gordon’s ministerial-exception argument because that’s just one of the many defenses the college has asserted in the case and the state courts have yet to enter final judgment on the merits of her claims, she said.

“On that understanding, I concur in the denial of certiorari,” Alito said.

Jackson Lewis PC and Alliance Defending Freedom represented the college. Fair Work PC and Americans United for Separation of Church and State represented DeWeese-Boyd.

The case is Gordon Coll. v. DeWeese-Boyd, U.S., No. 21-145, cert. denied 2/28/22.

To contact the reporter on this story: Patrick Dorrian in Washington at pdorrian@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rob Tricchinelli at rtricchinelli@bloomberglaw.com; Steven Patrick at spatrick@bloomberglaw.com

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