By / Mar 11

In a recent case, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled unanimously against Gordon College, a non-denominational Christian school in the state of Massachusetts, about whether it can be sued by a former professor for employment discrimination. 

Margaret DeWeese-Boyd, a former professor of social work claims she was “denied tenure . . . because of her protected activity opposing Gordon College’s discriminatory anti-LGBTQ+ policies and practices, her advocacy on behalf of LGBTQ+ individuals at Gordon College, and/or her gender.” Because Gordon College is a religious institution, the school sought to end DeWeese-Boyd’s lawsuit by claiming that her role was covered under the ministerial exception. 

In a significant and misguided ruling, the court determined that the ministerial exception does not apply in this case, as Boyd’s teaching responsibilities were insufficient grounds to consider her a “ministerial employee.” If not overturned, such a standard would have seismic implications for religious institutions in education from pre-schools to universities–at least in Massachusetts–by imperiling their ability to hire and retain teachers and faculty dedicated to their institution’s mission and beliefs.

What is this case about? 

Fundamentally this case is about the scope of the ministerial exception. Writing for the court, Justice Kafker stated, “This case requires us to assess whether the ministerial exception applies to an associate professor of social work at a private Christian liberal arts college . . . Unfortunately, the parameters of the exception — that is to say, who is covered by the ministerial exception — remain somewhat unclear.” 

Like any instructor at a Christian institution, Deweese-Boyd was expected to meaningfully integrate the Christian faith into the disciplines she taught. But as a professor of social work, she was not responsible for teaching sacred texts, leading students in devotions, or other explicitly religious exercises. 

As Christianity Today reports, in 2016 Gordon College amended its faculty handbook to explicitly state that all professors at the school were considered ministers. Likewise, the president of Gordon College attested to this, saying “there are no non-sacred disciplines” at the school. The key principle is  that every professor at Gordon College is expected to pursue instruction in a distinctly Christian manner, regardless of their discipline or course of instruction.

What is the ministerial exception? 

The ministerial exception is a constitutional protection that bars the government from interfering with hiring decisions made by religious organizations. Allowing the government to control the hiring practices of religious organizations would infringe on the Free Exercise rights of religious institutions to operate independent of government involvement. The ministerial exception is grounded in both religious clauses of the First Amendment.

In its June 2020 decision in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morissey Beru (in which the ERLC filed an amicus brief cited in the Court’s ruling), the Supreme Court held that there is no rigid formula to determine if the ministerial exception applies. Rather, the Court looks at a variety of factors surrounding the individual’s employment including, but not limited to: official title, religious training, religious credentials, a source of religious instruction, and whether the duties played a role in teaching the religious organization’s message and conveying its mission.

In ruling against Gordon College, the Massachusetts court compared DeWeese-Boyd’s responsibilities to those roles previously considered by the Supreme Court related to the ministerial exception. Ultimately, the court determined her roles did not fall within the “unclear” parameters of the ministerial exception and allowed her discrimination lawsuit to move forward. This ruling is surprising because it seems self-evident the Supreme Court declined to articulate the explicit parameters of the ministerial exception to avoid these very circumstances, a lower court seeking to evade application of the standard in cases where specific functions have not previously been considered by the Court.

Could this affect other Christian colleges and universities?

Possibly. While this is a very disappointing ruling that threatens the integrity and religious freedom of Christian educational institutions in Massachusetts, it is possible that Gordon College will appeal the ruling. Were they to be successful upon appeal, the result could strengthen the protections of the ministerial exception for faith-based institutions in the commonwealth. Moreover, even if the college does not further contest the ruling, issues related to the ministerial exception are likely to continue to arise for religious schools across the country.

The ruling is deeply problematic because it allows the government to significantly overstep its authority based on a flawed understanding of Christian education. No one expects the government to have a nuanced or comprehensive understanding of the ways the Christian faith is applied to instruction in non-religious disciplines, such as social work or math or chemistry. But the principles of separation and free exercise exist precisely because the government does not need to understand these things to respect them and to recognize that they lie beyond the purview of the state.

In the court’s ruling, Justice Kafker stated, “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.” In this, the court asked the right question but arrived at the wrong conclusion. The entire premise of Christian education is that the Christian faith has unique implications for every area of life and academic discipline. It is not for courts to decide the extent to which the faith applies to such instruction. And in limiting the ministerial exception, the court significantly restricted the religious freedom of faith-based schools in the commonwealth.

What happens next?

Religious institutions should never be forced to choose between accomplishing their mission and the faith that compels that mission. After the Supreme Court’s ruling in Our Lady of Guadalupe School, administrators, faculty, students, and parents involved with Christian schools, colleges, and universities in the United States were able to breathe a sigh of relief. That ruling indicated that these institutions would enjoy broad protections under the ministerial exception to make employment decisions based on their faith and mission without the fear of government interference.

It is critical that these institutions maintain such freedom. It is unfathomable to think that faith-based institutions would be forced to hire or maintain employees whose teaching or stated beliefs run contrary to the core beliefs of the institution itself. Whether or not Gordon College opts to appeal this ruling, we expect further legal action on the ministerial exception. And the ERLC will continue to advocate on behalf of these institutions and in defense of religious liberty.

By / Oct 8

Accreditation just gets “curiouser and curiouser” (to quote Alice in Wonderland). The New England Association of Schools and Colleges is pressuring Gordon College to drop its strictures against “homosexual practice,” and Gordon has bought time by agreeing to review the policy over the next year. In a mid-July letter to Gordon President Michael Lindsey, NEASC’s president Barbara Brittingham assured him that neither withdrawal of accreditation nor probation were on the table for the upcoming September meeting (a short-term assurance the College tends, understandably, to extrapolate to the more distant future), but one has to wonder whether the Association will be so laid back if Gordon’s journey of essentially-coerced, sensitive self-scrutiny brings it back to precisely to the good place it’s been all along.

It may seem that Gordon’s long-term viability as a convictional school is at stake, but I would suggest that the future of accreditors such as NEASC is really the issue. How can they survive while continuing to behave so badly?

Newcomers to the scene might well wonder what scruples over homosexual behavior in their midst has to do with Gordon’s heft as an educational institution, especially since the vast majority of humankind throughout history, and today, has found gay and lesbian sex to be perverse. When did the “love that dare not speak its name” become “the love whose critics dare not speak their names?”

Neophytes likely miss the point that academic accreditation, as practiced in America, has long since left its focus on serious scholarship and found the charms of social engineering and convenience-marketing more compelling.

Accreditors, who used to make sure that schools had substantial libraries, reputable, well-trained professors, and such now strain at minutiae, making manifestly wonderful schools jump through hoops of dubious provenance, passing judgment on scholars whose sandals many of these “education professionals” are unworthy to unlatch.

Alas, schools desperate for noses and nickels and have come a long way from the day when American president James Garfield could observe, plausibly, that an “ideal college was one with [Williams College president] Mark Hopkins on one end of a log and a student on the other” (a favorite quote of my old philosophy chairman at Wheaton College, Arthur Holmes). The system now is little disposed to produce either the Hopkinses or the students who are apt for or inclined toward a profitable afternoon on said log. Instead, most colleges and seminaries willingly pay bureaucrats to satisfy the bureaucrats at the accreditation bureaus, while the dispiriting race to the bottom continues.

Then there’s the ideological bullying, such as that which Gordon is suffering. It’s not a new thing. Let me offer a little history.

Back in 1991, the Middle States Association of Schools and Colleges pulled a similar stunt, this time to serve the feminist agenda. They menaced Westminster Theological Seminary for having a board made up exclusively of men, ignoring the seminary’s charter requiring ordination of its trustees and its belief that ordination should be limited to men. In other words, MSASC took sides in the egalitarian-complementarian theological/ecclesiological debate and threatened to punish the seminary for coming out on the wrong side of that issue.

Fortunately, President George H.W. Bush had appointed now-Senator Lamar Alexander as Secretary of Education, and Alexander expressed reservations over re-certifying MSASC to judge schools in their territory. It got their attention, and, accepting a face-saving tweak, they relented. Unfortunately, President Obama’s Secretary of Education Arne Duncan shows no such interest in protecting biblically serious schools from PC harassment.

Such hostile forays into biblical communities are not limited to secular accreditors. Back in the mid-90s, the Association of Theological Schools revised their bylaws, and therein took a run at the complementarians in their midst. (I’m told they also tried to punish schools who drew lines against homosexuality, but the Mainliners failed to move this out of committee.) When they essayed an egalitarian clause, they got pushback from traditionalists, and so they permitted a qualifier. The resulting line stipulated that egalitarian standards were the ATS default position, but that an exception could be made for schools whose root, historical (read “knuckle-dragging, patro-tyrannical”) practice prevented them from cooperating in good (read “pathetic”) conscience.

While this was a helpful adjustment, I suggested, from the floor, that it should read something like, “The ATS position should honor long-standing, vastly-favored, biblical-based scruples supporting complementary gender roles in the Church, but if member institutions cannot bring themselves to accept them, they should be allowed to deviate toward egalitarian practice.” As I recall, it was not that well received, though, afterwards, I discovered that it heartened a number of rougher characters.

Now we have the silliness at NEASC, and there is little prospect of spiritual or even rational awakening in the halls of accreditation. They will continue to advance the “tolerance” agenda, so well described in Allen Bloom’s, The Closing of the American Mind. Where forced into tactical retreat, they will regroup, and emerge to fight another day.

What’s next? Will they assault Union University in Jackson, Tennessee, when someone cries, “These wahoos say Hindus are going to hell!” Talk about politically incorrect. And poor Gordon has also drawn the line against those engaging “sexual relations outside of marriage,” so they’d better brace themselves against the co-habitation enthusiasts, who might exclaim, in horror, “You mean to say that Oprah Winfrey could not have been admitted to Gordon when she was living with Stedman Graham!? Have you no shame?”

Meanwhile, Princeton University seems accreditationally safe even through they continue to employ a philosophy professor, Peter Singer, who suggests that bestiality may not be so bad. The same goes for Northwestern University, whose faculty includes a Holocaust denier and a sexologist who scheduled a couple performing a live, nude, conjugal act for his students. Apparently, a lot of leeway and lunacy is acceptable so long as it’s not “leeway and lunacy” based on Christian scripture – “foolishness to the Greeks” if you will.

From her bio, I read that NEASC’s enforcer, Barbara Brittingham, has served widely as an accreditation consultant in the North Africa and the Middle East – in Qatar, Oman, Morocco, and the United Arab Emirates. One wonders whether she’s dared to suggest rules for the normalization of homosexuality in the Arab World schools she’s advised. Perhaps she’ll begin to notice that homosexuals are safer in cultures shaped historically by the Bible (and Bible-based schools such as Gordon) than in regions ignorant of or hostile to God’s Word.

President Eisenhower warned of the power of the “military-industrial complex.” Today, we must decry the anti-Christian-school power of the “government-education” complex, which seems determined to homogenize institutional belief and practice in a decidedly unholy direction.

Christianity Today reports that Gordon, which prides itself on its “history of respectful self-critique and of dialogue with individuals of diverse backgrounds” has formed a “discernment committee,” to the satisfaction of Ms. Brittingham. I’m afraid the discernment they’re seeking may not be so much biblically exegetical – congruent with the full counsel of the ‘IXTHUS’ spelled out in Greek on their seal – as diplomatically expedient. Me genoito!

I trust there are limits to how much we evangelicals will endure. We said as much in the Manhattan Declaration. And I hope the accreditors are listening.

By / Jul 17

If you've been following the news, you may have heard that 14 religious leaders sent President Obama a letter requesting a religious exemption in his planned executive order banning discrimination by government contractors against employees on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Michael Lindsay of Gordon College was one of those who signed the letter and has received an incredible amount of local criticism here in Greater Boston. The criticism has come from local governmental officials, his own faculty, staff and students, social media posts and news outlets, such as USA Today, Boston Globe, and Huffington Post.

In 2011, I had the privilege of planting Netcast Church, which currently has a large attendance of students, faculty and staff from Gordon College. As the pastor of a young and growing evangelical church that sits in the heart of a very liberal and post-modern culture, watching the unfortunate chaos unfold has been quite eye-opening. As I wrestle through my own convictions and personal stances on these issues, these are a few things that I have been reminded of:

Jesus is the great liberator.

The reason many people are turned off by Christianity is because, historically, we spend our time fighting for what we are against rather than explaining the liberties we are actually for. By doing this, we take away the beauty and liberation of the gospel message, making it hard for people to see Jesus through the flying bullets. As a believer in Jesus, I want to remember that my liberties associated with the gospel are endless and beautiful. Therefore, shout the freedom and liberation that is found in Jesus as we submit all areas of life, conduct and theological understandings to His authority.

Love will be perceived as hate.

No matter how hard evangelicals attempt to love our neighbor, some neighbors will see that love as hatred and oppression. Jesus came from heaven to earth in order to love his people and liberate them from oppression. He did this by providing salvation through his sinless life, substitutionary death and victorious resurrection. However, the very ones who Christ came to love, perceived that love as hatred and crucified him for it. As evangelicals, we are called to love others by proclaiming Jesus as the means toward a liberty, freedom and joy than can't be found in anything other than our Savior. As I point others to a joy in Jesus by loving them enough to encourage the submission of our sexuality to his Lordship, that loving motivation will often be perceived as hatred. There's very little I can do about it.

Fans can become critics overnight.

Although I don't know Dr. Lindsay on a personal level, I have met with him and admire him. From what I gather, he is a loving father to three daughters and just celebrated 19 years of faithful commitment to his wife, Rebecca. Although he has been criticized for his driven professionalism, he has a strong reputation among his board, staff and students. In addition to that, his work has been admired in a wide range of secular media outlets, and he’s been given interviews with some of our nation’s top political leaders.

From what I can tell, Dr. Lindsay is a faithful believer in Jesus, loves the North Shore of Greater Boston and leads his college with conviction. What amazes me is that, with one stroke of the pen, many of his fans became vocal critics. He went from being a deeply respected and loved member of the community, to being viewed as an irrelevant and insensitive conservative bigot overnight. 

Being misunderstood is expected.

Jesus has made it clear that those of this world will hate us because they first hated him. If Christians were like the world and gave in to every pleasure, sensual desire, cunning doctrine and ambition, the world would not oppose us. If we were silent or conformists when it came to our convictions, the world would not despise us; but Christians do not belong to the world–this is why we are often misunderstood and disliked.

It should be expected that our truths will be viewed as narrow-minded, our love will be viewed as hate and our doctrinal convictions will be viewed as bigotry. However, let’s not forget that some of this points to good news. James argues that trials test our faith, develop endurance in our lives and lead to maturity. Paul reminds us that persecution allows us to share in a unique intimacy with the Lord. In the death and resurrection of Jesus, we see that the most horrific deeds done by men can bring about the most glorious event that the world has ever known.

In a world that seems to be getting increasingly hostile toward orthodox Christianity, Christians must unite together. As we proclaim good news and stand in the face of antagonism, accusation and misunderstandings, we must remind each other that Jesus was merciful and patient as we antagonized, accused and misunderstood him. May we have the grace to respond rightly in the midst of these disputes, and may we model our Lord's example as he cried from a horrific cross, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”