Religious school faculty not exempt from anti-discrimination laws 

SJC case could affect hiring by religious institutions 

A CHRISTIAN COLLEGE cannot classify all its faculty as “ministers” if they do not have explicitly religious duties, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled Friday, in a decision that could have a major impact in affirming that religious institutions are subject to anti-discrimination laws in their hiring decisions.  

The Massachusetts court ruling, involving a former professor at Gordon College, a private Christian liberal arts college in Wenham, is the latest salvo in a national dialogue over religious freedom that dates back to the nation’s founding.  

The First Amendment to the US Constitution establishes that government will have no role in establishing a state religion. The provision was meant to ensure that unlike the English Crown, the US government would not force churches to hire ministers of a particular denomination. That constitutional clause led to the “ministerial exception,” which means that laws preventing discrimination on the basis of religion, sex, race, or any other protected class do not apply to religious institutions hiring clergy. 

The question then becomes who counts as a minister? 

In this case, the court ruled that Margaret DeWeese-Boyd, a social work professor at the school, can bring a discrimination case against Gordon College, because she is not considered a ministerial employee.  

Hillary Schwab, an attorney for DeWeese-Boyd, called the ruling “very significant” in that it makes clear that workers at religious institutions – such as schools, nursing homes, or hospitals – who do not do ministerial tasks will be protected by anti-discrimination laws.  

But Dwight Duncan, a professor at UMass Law School who represented a group of Christian colleges in a brief in support of Gordon College, said the case could hurt religious education. “I think it’s going to impede religious colleges from fulfilling their mission, which is to integrate faith and, in this case, the liberal arts,” Duncan said. “If they’re going to have to hire teachers that are publicly at odds with the church’s view, that’s going to in effect impede their ability to practice their religion.” 

The ruling is likely to be appealed to the US Supreme Court, which has considered these issues twice in the last decade.  

In 2012, the court ruled that a teacher at a Lutheran school, who was also an ordained minister, was considered a minister and could not file a discrimination lawsuit. In a second case in 2020, the court ruled that two Catholic elementary school teachers could be considered ministers because even though they were not ordained, they played key roles in teaching religion to students. 

In the Gordon College case, DeWeese-Boyd was a tenured associate professor of social work at the school. In 2016, she applied for a promotion to full professor and was denied. The letter denying her the promotion cited a lack of scholarly productivity, professionalism, and other work-related concerns. But DeWeese-Boyd contended that it was because of her gender, her evangelical Protestant beliefs, and because she advocated for lesbian and gay individuals at the college and opposed the college’s biblically-influenced view that gay sex is sinful.   

The SJC was asked to decide whether DeWeese-Boyd could pursue a discrimination claim against the college or whether she was a ministerial employee, in which case anti-discrimination laws would not apply. 

In a 40-page unanimous decision written by Justice Scott Kafker, the court ruled that although Gordon College is a religious institution, DeWeese-Boyd is not a ministerial employee. 

The court made a distinction between the teachers in the US Supreme Court cases, who taught religion to their students, and DeWeese-Boyd, who taught social work. 

“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,” Kafker wrote. “We consider this a significant difference.” 

The trickiest question for the court came from the fact that DeWeese-Boyd was required by Gordon College to teach from a Christian perspective and integrate her Christian faith into her work, which she did. But Kafker wrote that because she was not ordained, did not hold herself out as a minister, and did not teach religion or engage in religious practices with her students, this is not enough to classify her as a minister.  

Kafker wrote that if the US Supreme Court decisions were read with a broader interpretation, Gordon College could classify all its employees as ministers, because they were all required to integrate their Christian faith into their work at the college. That kind of reading could create what Kafker described as an “enormous” expansion of the ministerial exemption – bringing with it the elimination of civil protections against discrimination.  

“The significant expansion of the ministerial exception doctrine requested by Gordon is not dictated nor, do we believe, directed by existing Supreme Court precedent,” Kafker wrote. “It is our understanding that the ministerial exception has been carefully circumscribed to avoid any unnecessary conflict with civil law.” 

DeWeese-Boyd is no longer working at the school, since her department was eliminated while the litigation was pending. But Schwab said DeWeese-Boyd is happy with the decision, and her litigation will continue in Essex Superior Court on the merits of whether the college’s failure to promote her was discriminatory. 

A spokesman for Gordon College, Rick Sweeney, said, “we respectfully disagree” with the court ruling that DeWeese-Boyd was not subject to the ministerial exception. Sweeney said the school would not comment beyond that because of the ongoing case involving the promotion decision.

Attorney General Maura Healey’s office had weighed in on behalf of DeWeese-Boyd, arguing in a brief filed with the SJC that DeWeese-Boyd should not be classified as a ministerial employee. Healey wrote that employment discrimination remains a problem today, with serious economic ramifications for employees who are affected, and exemptions like the one for ministers “should extend no further than necessary to protect religious employers’ constitutional rights.”  

A group of liberal-leaning religious organizations, led by the Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Action, filed a court brief in support of DeWeese-Boyd, as did a coalition of minority rights groups and associations representing social workers and employment lawyers, led by the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice. 

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Shira Schoenberg

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

The national Council for Christian Colleges and Universities and 46 religious schools filed a brief in support of Gordon College. The brief argued that teachers at religious schools are required to teach in a way that is “infused with faith” and if schools are not allowed discretion to decide who can transmit their faith, it “would be devastating to religious higher education in Massachusetts.”  

Two conservative-leaning Jewish groups – the Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty and Agudath Israel of America – filed a brief in support of Gordon College, as did a group of law professors whose work focuses on constitutional law and religious liberty.