WENHAM — The state's highest court has ruled that a former Gordon College professor who said she was wrongly denied a promotion can proceed with her discrimination case against the Christian school because she is not a "minister."
Gordon College had claimed that all of its employees are "ministerial employees" and thus not covered by anti-discrimination laws. But in a unanimous ruling on Thursday, the seven-member Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court said that social work professor Margaret DeWeese-Boyd was not a minister because she did not teach religion, lead her students in prayer, take students to chapel services, deliver sermons, or perform other duties that the U.S. Supreme Court deemed characteristic of that title.
If all employees of religious institutions were considered ministerial employees, the court said, "the breadth of this expansion of the ministerial exception and its eclipsing and elimination of civil law protection against discrimination would be enormous."
Hilary Schwab, an attorney representing DeWeese-Boyd, said the decision will have "very broad implications" for employees of religious institutions who don't have expressly religious duties.
"The SJC recognized that the ministerial exception has to be narrowly applied, or the alternative would be that workers at religious institutions would be entirely without discrimination protections," Schwab said.
DeWeese-Boyd sued Gordon College in 2017, accusing the school's president and provost of discrimination for denying her promotion to full professor because of her vocal opposition to the school's LBGTQ policies.
The college countered that DeWeese-Boyd should be subject to the "ministerial exception" that exempts employees of religious institutions from discrimination laws. The exception is designed to protect religious institutions from government interference in selecting employees "who minister to their faithful."
In its ruling, the Supreme Judicial Court said the case presented a "difficult decision" regarding two fundamental American legal principles — a person's right to be protected against discrimination, and a religious institution's First Amendment right under the separation of church and state to choose employees to propagate religious doctrine.
Gordon College spokesman Rick Sweeney said the school disagreed with the court's finding that DeWeese-Boyd was not subject to the ministerial exception. He noted the ruling did reaffirm that the college is a religious institution.
"Gordon's mission remains unchanged," Sweeney said in an email. "The foundational basis of Gordon's educational experience has been and will continue to be the integration of faith and learning as a distinctly Christian institution."
Sweeney said the college would not comment further because the case is ongoing. He said Gordon is "keeping all legal options open."
DeWeese-Boyd, who lives in Georgetown, lost her job at Gordon College in 2019 when the school eliminated its social work major. Her discrimination case against the college will now return to Essex Superior Court.
Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2535, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at @heardinbeverly.