The First Amendment and freedom of religion will be the topic of discussion in a potential court battle involving a local scholar over his refusal to address a transgender student in the manner the student has asked to be addressed.
A Shawnee State University professor has filed a lawsuit against the University after he was punished for failure to comply with the University’s nondiscrimination policies.
The Plaintiff, Dr. Nicholas Meriwether, Humanities Professor who has been with the University since 1996, was “silenced” and “punished”, according to the lawsuit he filed, by the University after he refused to address a transgender student by their preferred pronouns.
In the lawsuit, filed in US District Court in Cincinnati, which Meriwether accuses the University of retaliating against him for exercising his First Amendment rights, The trustees of Shawnee State University, Imterim President Jeff Bauer, Roberta Milliken, Jennifer Pauley, Tena Pierce, Douglas Shoemaker, and Malonda Johnson are named as Defendants.
According to the lawsuit, on Jan. 9 of 2018 a transgender student (Alena Bruening) approached Dr. Meriwether after class and stated that Bruening was transgender and identified as female and demanded to be addressed as such. Meriwether said he could not comply with this demand and was not sure students could dictate how professors must refer to them. The lawsuit states, “To accede to these demands would have required Dr. Meriwether to communicate views regarding gender identity that he does not hold, that he does not wish to communicate, and that would contradict his sincerely held Christian beliefs.”
The lawsuit states that per his refusal Bruening became “belligerent” and stated “Then I guess this means I can call you a (expletive)”
Meriwether reported Bruening’s conduct to Jennifer Pauly, Chair of the Department of English and Humanities, who relayed her conversation to Dr. Marc Scott, SSU professor and president of the faculty senate, and later emailed the Dean of Students regarding the altercation.
The Dean of Students relayed the incident to Douglas Shoemaker, who then met with Bruening, apprised Roberta Milliken, Acting Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences at SSU, and advised her how to proceed. On Jan 11, Milliken visited Dr. Meriwether’s office to discuss the situation and advised Meriwether to begin referring to all students by their last names only, and to eliminate all gender references from his expression.
Meriwether explained that, “referring to students by last names alone would undermine the serious pedagogical environment he seeks to create, because that is what people refer to one another in junior high or on an athletic team, and not the way scholars engage in a serious, respectful enterprise, refer to one another.”
Meriwether proposed he would accommodate Bruening by referring to the particular student using only a last name. The arrangement was originally approved by Milliken, but later rejected.
According to the lawsuit, from January 11 until January 25, no issues occurred between Meriwether and Bruening.
On January 25, according to the lawsuit, “Milliken expressed to Meriwether that the student was not satisfied with the arrangement and had threatened to file a Title IX grievance over Dr. Meriwether’s expression.”
Meriwether was informed that if he did not comply with Bruening’s demands that he would be violating the University’s Nondiscrimination Policies.
Per the suit, “In early Feb. 2018 the student spoke with Tena Pierce and indicated that his complaint had not been resolved and stated he would contact his lawyer if the issue was not resolved.”
After conversation between Pierce and Shoemaker it was decided that Milliken should proceed with the next steps. On Feb. 12, Milliken visited Meriwether to see if he had decided how he would proceed after their meeting on Jan. 25. Meriwether asked for clarification on what would be allowed under the University’s Nondiscrimination Policies.
Meriwether asked if referring to all students by self-asserted gender identity, and placing a disclaimer in his syllabus, noting that he was only doing so under “compulsion” and setting forth his personal and religious beliefs about gender identity would comply with University policies, which he was informed would still violate the Nondiscrimination Policies.
Meriwether offered to refer to Bruening by either first or last preferred legal name, without using any gendered titles, but was not willing to refer to Bruening as a woman.
Meriwether also indicated he was not willing to stop referring to all other students by their last names and gender appropriate titles.
Milliken indicated that disciplinary action would be taken against the professor under the universities non-discrimination policies.
Meriwether received formal notice that he was expected to comply with policy and was alerted that the university was conducting an investigation.
The investigation concluded that Meriwether’s “Disparate treatment” had created a hostile environment for Bruening, violating the Universities policies.
Meriwether was adamant that the investigation was in violation of the collective bargaining agreement, but was issued a written warning. According to Shawnee State University, Dr. Meriwether remains a tenured professor in good standing in its English & Humanities Department and is teaching courses this fall.
While Meriwether deferred all questions from The Daily Times to legal advisors, who did not respond by the time of press, Shawnee State University responded to the suit with the following statement, “Our mission at Shawnee State University is to prepare today’s students to succeed in tomorrow’s world. In support of that mission, we value freedom of expression by students, faculty, staff, and visitors on our campus — and provide an educational and work environment that is free from discrimination, retaliation, and harassment,” stated the University. “While we aren’t able to correct or discuss specific claims while the case is in litigation, we expect that as this case progresses and details come to light, it will become clear that we made decisions in an effort to both respect our faculty member’s deep-rooted religious beliefs and our student’s right to equal treatment in the classroom. We hope it will also become evident that our non-discrimination policy is not about advocating one belief over another, but of ensuring equal treatment for all on our campus regardless of race, color, genetic information, religion, age, disability, national origin, ancestry, sex, pregnancy, sexual orientation, gender identity, veteran status, or military status.”
Reach: Ivy Potter (740) 353-3101 Extension 1932