U.S. Supreme Court asked to decide whether social work professor at religious college is ministerial employee under Title VII

by | Aug 11, 2021

On its own, “social work professor” doesn’t sound like an especially religious or ministerial job title. But, what if the professor teaches at a religious college and is required to “integrate religious faith into teaching and scholarship”?

Gordon College, a private Christian liberal arts college in Massachusetts, argues that a discrimination claim for wrongful termination brought by Professor Margaret Deweese-Boyd is barred by the “ministerial exception,” which prohibits courts from considering employment discrimination claims against houses of worship or other religious entities by employees who serve a ministerial role.

As I posted back in March, the Massachusetts Supreme Court concluded that Deweese-Boyd is not a ministerial employee, allowing her claim to move forward. But in a petition filed with the U.S. Supreme Court, Gordon College argues that the function of every professor at a religious school is ministerial and qualifies for the exception if the mission of the school is to integrate religion throughout all academic disciplines. The petition asks the Court to overturn the Massachusetts Supreme Court and bar Deweese-Boyd’s claim altogether.

Here is an excerpt:

No matter the classroom subject, authentically religious colleges and universities expect their faculty to embody and to further the institution’s mission of transmitting their religious faith. Such schools’ mission is not merely to educate students but to teach them particular religious beliefs and help them integrate those beliefs into every academic discipline.

Whether integrating faith into an academic discipline is a religious function is fundamentally a religious question.

Specifically, Gordon College asks the Supreme Court to take up two questions:

1. Whether professors at religious colleges perform ministerial functions when the college exists to spread its faith, and the college requires faculty, as a primary component of their position, to integrate Christian doctrine into their work and academic disciplines, engage in teaching and scholarship from a decidedly religious perspective, and serve as advisors and mentors for student spiritual formation.


2. Whether the First Amendment requires courts to defer to the good-faith characterization of a ministerial position by a religious organization or church.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled just last year in Our Lady of Guadalupe that the ministerial exception applied to grade schoolteachers in a Catholic elementary school whose function included things like teaching religion classes to students, praying with students, and attending chapel with students. For more on this topic, check out Episode 13 (“Who’s a minister and who gets to decide?”) of the BJC Podcast series “Respecting Religion.” In that discussion, BJC General Counsel Holly Hollman and Executive Director Amanda Tyler talk about the scope of the ministerial exception and the Guadalupe case. 

The next Supreme Court term begins October 4.