By Jonathan Chandra (’19)
After presenting further oral arguments, attorneys for Margaret Deweese-Boyd and Gordon College must wait on how the case is to proceed.
The 40-minute hearing this Tuesday at the Essex County Superior Court, part of an ongoing suit by social work professor Deweese-Boyd against the college for unlawful discrimination tied to LGBT+ advocacy, dealt primarily with arguments on the issue of ministerial exception.
The ministerial exception is a legal doctrine that maintains that religious institutions cannot be sued for employment discrimination if the employee is considered a “minister,” or performs religious functions.
In court, Gordon College argued that Deweese-Boyd should be considered a minister.
Attorney Andrew Pickett cited among other cases the precedent set in Supreme Court case Hosanna-Tabor v. Equal Opportunity Commission, in which teacher Cheryl Perich filed a suit against her former employers, a Lutheran elementary school, for employment discrimination.
Perich taught mostly secular subjects throughout the day, though she also led worship and regularly taught a religious class. She was also designated as “called,” distinct from a lay teacher under the Missouri Synod of the Lutheran Church. The Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the ministerial exception applied in this case.
Deweese-Boyd’s attorney, Hillary Schwab, disputed the relevance of the ministerial clause in her case. Schwab noted that Deweese-Boyd neither teaches religious courses, leads worship, nor has undergone formal ministerial training for her position. She stressed the difference between being an instructor with Christian convictions and being a minister.
As the case moves into the discovery, a pre-trial process that involves the collection of evidence relevant to the case, Gordon College has argued for a bifurcated process, arguing that it will be more cost-effective. Under a bifurcated process, only evidence relevant to the ministerial concern would be collected, with broader issues of discrimination addressed at a later stage if necessary.
Deweese-Boyd opposes, citing contract-based elements of the suit that fall outside of the ministerial concern. Schwab also indicated that the plaintiff would be filing a sur-reply to address what she sees as inaccuracies in some evidence presented by the College.
Schwab was optimistic after the hearing.
“I am pleased that the judge seems to understand how important the issues raised by this motion are and that it takes more to be a minister than just working at a Christian college,” she said.
Pickett is yet to respond to contact from the Tartan about the hearing.
Close to 30 spectators were in attendance, with most familiar to Deweese-Boyd, who greeted and conversed with them before and after the hearing. Among this number were at least 13 current or former Gordon employees, present in a seeming show of support.
Some of those present were former members of the Faculty Senate that collectively resigned in April of last year. The unprecedented resignation was in part tied to concerns with shared governance, including President Lindsay and Provost Curry’s denial of Deweese-Boyd’s promotion to full professorship despite the Senate’s unanimous recommendation.
No members of Gordon administration were present at the hearing.
Judge Tabit has provisionally set the next hearing for July 25, where he will announce his decision on how the case should proceed.
Nathanael Ryan ’19 contributed to this article