Employment Law for Ministries


State Supreme Court Rules Against Gordon College on the Ministerial Exception

Gordon College in Massachusetts for several years has been combating a lawsuit by an associate professor of social work, DeWeese-Boyd. She claimed that the college denied her a full professorship because of her sex and her vocal alliance with LBGTQ causes. The college argued that Deweese-Boyd was a "minister" for purposes of the ministerial exception and that the First Amendment therefore barred her lawsuit. Last week, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ruled that DeWeese-Boyd is not a minister. (See our January 2021 newsletter for additional information on the case.) 

DeWeese-Boyd v. Gordon College differs from other court rulings about the ministerial exception because it tackles the doctrine's application to workers who do not have overtly religious job duties (say, teaching Scripture) but who nonetheless are expected to integrate their institution's faith into their everyday job duties. The Court recognized that aspect of the case at the outset: “The most difficult issue for us is how to evaluate [DeWeese-Boyd’s] responsibility to integrate her Christian faith into her teaching and scholarship as a professor of social work.”

The Court noted that “[t]he integration of religious faith and belief with daily life and work is a common requirement in many, if not all, religious institutions." This intimate faith-life integration complicates efforts to apply the ministerial exception. First, courts must not look askance at or minimize this worldview because to do so would discriminate against its adherents. Second, a worker’s integration of faith and career on a day-to-day basis is, for the most part, not objectively measurable. A teacher may train up her students in the faith simply by choosing particular words, examples, or topics in conveying a lesson, not just by leading morning prayer. In fact, the mode, manner, and content of a classroom presentation is probably more important to conveying the faith to the next generation than an occasional or brief devotional.

The expectations Gordon College set for its faculty indicated as much: a faculty member “cultivates a sense that ‘knowing’ is a matter not just of the intellect, but also of faith, praxis, and intuitive insight”; “helps students make connections between course content, Christian thought and principles, and personal faith and practice"; and, among other things, “encourages students to develop morally responsible ways of living in the world informed by biblical principles and Christian reflection.”

The Court acknowledged the college's expectations for its faculty, observing that it was "undisputed that this integrative responsibility was part of [DeWeese-Boyd's] duty and function as a social work professor at a nondenominational religious institution”:

DeWeese-Boyd was ... required to, and did, both engage in teaching and scholarship from a Christian perspective and integrate her faith into her work. The handbook defines this … duty as “continually explor[ing] how a Christian worldview enhances, redefines, or confronts their discipline’s preeminent practices and philosophical assumptions” [and] “promot[ing] understanding of their disciplines from the perspectives of the Christian faith.” … The social work curriculum “is informed by a Christian understanding of individuals, communities, and societies,” and seeks the "integration and application of social work and Christian values” and to “[e]mphasize the Christian liberal arts foundation and perspective.”

Yet in the end, the Court concluded that “DeWeese-Boyd was expected and required to be a Christian teacher and scholar, but not a minister":

She 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, … nor did she lead students in devotional exercises or lead chapel services. ... Therefore, the ministerial exception cannot apply as a defense to her claims against Gordon.

The Court was swayed by a concern that a contrary holding would make the ministerial exception too broad, too powerful. Noting that many religious institutions advocate an integrated faith-life worldview, the Court cautioned that "the breadth of this expansion of the ministerial exception and its eclipsing and elimination of civil law protection against discrimination would be enormous.” One could argue, on the other hand, that the First Amendment has always had "enormous” consequences.

Many might find it problematic that the Court decided that contemporary social justice ends—not found in the Constitution—are a reason to curtail the reach of religious liberty guaranteed by the First Amendment. Others may question the Court's reasoning that the very pervasiveness of a religious worldview justified limiting the ministerial exception. The ruling may therefore be one that the U.S. Supreme Court will consider if Gordon College chooses to appeal.

This summary is provided as an informational tool. It is not intended to be and should not be considered legal advice, and receipt of this information does not establish an attorney-client relationship.