WENHAM — The state's highest court grappled Monday with the extent of its role in determining whether someone teaching at a Christian college can be considered a minister — a designation that will decide whether a former associate professor can sue the school over its denial of a promotion. 

"I feel like we're treading into dangerous territory," said Supreme Judicial Court Justice Scott Kafker during arguments in the case that former Gordon College associate professor Margaret DeWeese-Boyd brought against the school. 

DeWeese-Boyd taught social work at the Wenham school for nearly two decades and sought a full professorship in 2016. She had the backing of the faculty senate, but the school rejected her request. 

DeWeese-Boyd had been an outspoken critic of Gordon College President Michael Lindsay's controversial request for an exemption from federal anti-LGBTQ discrimination rules. She contends that's the reason she was not promoted. 

The school's attorney, Eric Baxter, told the justices on Monday that the decision was based on her lack of published work. But he also argued that the reason doesn't matter, because she was a "ministerial" employee of a religious institution, and courts have given broad deference in similar situations. 

The Supreme Court has held that the "free exercise" clause of the First Amendment protects the right of religious institutions, such as Catholic parochial schools or a Jewish synagogue preparing children for a bar or bat mitzvah, to be free from government involvement in hiring and firing and other decisions if they involve employees who further the practice of that faith.

DeWeese-Boyd's lawyer, Hillary Schwab, argues that is not the case here. 

While she acknowledged that DeWeese-Boyd's application to the school and her application for tenure referenced her Christian faith, her experience as a missionary and attendance at a seminary, she said the school never expected her to perform any duties such as teaching religion, preaching or leading students to worship services, nor was she ever evaluated on such duties. 

Professors at Gordon, she argued, are expected to be experts in the field they teach. "They are not expected to be experts in any sort of religious duties," Schwab argued. Those duties are performed by a chaplain at the school.

"It is true that Professor DeWeese-Boyd had a Christian perspective," Schwab argued. But under the U.S. Supreme Court's most recent holding, involving hiring decisions in two parochial schools in Los Angeles, that's not what counts. 

"It is not what an employee thinks," argued Schwab, "but what an employee does." 

DeWeese-Boyd wrote and taught about societal issues such as poverty and social justice, not specifically about religion, argued Schwab. Nor did she perform religious duties like leading a class in prayer. 

Baxter, meanwhile, suggested that DeWeese-Boyd had expressly incorporated her faith into her work, and argued that even her choice of subjects, social work, was "inherently value laden," unlike math or engineering, two examples raised by the justices. 

Pressed by Justice Elspeth Cypher, however, Baxter acknowledged that it would be harder to show that a math professor played a ministerial role. 

Baxter, however, suggested that in this case, DeWeese-Boyd focused on her seminary background and missionary work, and pointed to half a dozen student evaluations that referred to DeWeese-Boyd as having strengthened their religious understanding. 

"When she applied at Gordon she touted her seminary training and missionary work as of particular benefit to students," Baxter argued, "and promised to provide a distinctly Christian education. In seeking advancements she consistently described her work as 'integrally Christian and 'furthering the kingdom of God.'"

Kafker pressed Baxter for specifically what he was seeking the court to do. 

The position, "essentially that you want us to adopt is that a professor at an evangelical college teaching a value-laden course from a religious perspective is covered by the ministerial exception? This thing is hard to pin down," Kafker said. 

Baxter, however, suggested that they weren't asking the court to take that broad a view. "We're asking for a narrower ruling," he told the court. "We're just asking that (DeWeese-Boyd) be identified as having an important religious role," he told the justices. 

The underlying discrimination and retaliation lawsuit brought by DeWeese-Boyd remains pending in Superior Court. Gordon College had sought to have the case dismissed without reaching the merits of the complaint on the grounds that the "ministerial exception" applied to her position. After a judge denied that motion, the school appealed. 

The SJC typically rules on cases within 120 days.  

Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, by email at jmanganis@salemnews.com or on Twitter at @SNJulieManganis. 

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