CINCINNATI — Following a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, a Shawnee State University professor now attains the ability to sue his employer.
Nicholas Meriwether, a philosophy professor of 25 years, won his case late last month where he alleged the university had violated his constitutional rights.
Representing Meriwether in the matter, Alliance Defending Freedom, a legal organization focused on matters involving “religious freedom, free speech, parental rights and the sanctity of life” expressed support with the decision.
“This case forced us to defend what used to be a common belief—that nobody should be forced to contradict their core beliefs just to keep their job,” said ADF Senior Counsel and vice president of Appellate Advocacy John Bursch in a statement. “The freedoms of speech and religion must be vigorously protected if universities are to remain places where ideas can be debated and learning can take place.”
Those rights- freedom of speech through the First Amendment and the 14th Amendment’s Due Process Clause- were not applied in the view of Circuit Judge Amul Thapar dating back to a 2018 incident.
As the opinion details, SSU emailed faculty members in 2016 to detail a pronouns policy that would discipline professors if they did not use a student’s preferred gender identity.
While voicing concerns to university officials, Meriwether went through the 2016-2017 school year without any specific issues. His primary opposition to the policy is that he believes it goes against Christian teachings.
“God created human beings as either male or female that this sex is fixed in each person from the moment of conception, and that it cannot be changed, regardless of an individual’s feelings or desires,” he is quoted in the 32-page opinion.
January 2018 brought about the issue when Meriwether did not refer to a transgender student’s preferred she/her pronouns. The student, referred to as “Jane Doe” in the legal documents, took issue with the decision and vowed to get the professor fired.
Meriwether opted to refer to the student by last name only, breaking from his typical method of placing “Mr.” or “Ms.” when calling a student in class. When that did not work, he said he would use the preferred pronouns if he could place a disclaimer in his syllabus explaining his religious views.
The university opened a Title IX investigation and determined Meriwether had “created a hostile environment” through differential treatment. He retained his position but had a formal warning placed in his file.
Any further instances could bring about unpaid suspension or termination, the Circuit Court opinion said. Meriwether responded by filing suit in November 2018.
Fellow SSU professors took to Twitter to voice their thoughts on the matter. Among them, assistant professor Thomas Bunting broke away from Meriwether’s stance, saying he strives to create inclusive classrooms.
“I had a student come out publicly as trans for the first time in a class of mine at Shawnee State because he felt safe there,” tweeted Bunting, who teaches political science. “I know that the vast majority of faculty here support students and treat all students with respect.”
The Portsmouth Daily Times reached out to SSU for comment on the matter and received the following statement:
“We were hopeful that the sixth Circuit Court of Appeals would recognize that the accommodations we extended to Dr. Meriwether were respectful of his religious views and also protected our student from discrimination in the classroom,” reads the response from a university spokesperson. “We are disappointed in the recent ruling, of course, and are making decisions about possible next steps with this case.”
Reach Patrick Keck (740)-353-3101 ext. 1931, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @pkeckreporter.
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