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Are Faculty At Religious Colleges Ministers? Question Is At Center Of Mass. Lawsuit

Gordon College is considered one of America's flagship evangelical colleges. (Max Larkin/WBUR)
Gordon College is considered one of America's flagship evangelical colleges. (Max Larkin/WBUR)

A judge will decide whether faculty at religious colleges in Massachusetts should be considered ministers — and therefore not be covered by anti-discrimination laws.

The question arises from a lawsuit by professor Margie DeWeese-Boyd at Gordon College in Wenham, who claims she was denied promotion because of her advocacy for the college's LGBT students.

As part of its code of conduct, the evangelical Christian college bars students and teachers from engaging in what it calls "homosexual practice." But that policy has sparked controversy in recent years.

The college's attorneys argued that faculty members are all asked to embrace and advance the school's Christian principles, and showed evidence that DeWeese-Boyd sought to suffuse her teaching with religious meaning.

DeWeese-Boyd is a practicing Christian, but taught sociology and social work — not religion. At Thursday's hearing in Essex County Superior Court, her attorney, Hillary Schwab, said DeWeese-Boyd's role did not include leading prayer or performing the "important religious functions" that marked workers out as ministers in a unanimous 2012 ruling by the Supreme Court.

Schwab said in her opinion, Gordon's defense is part of a bigger legal fight underway around Christian schools. "There's a strategy within certain religious-based institutions to try to make this exception be as broad as possible," Schwab said.

DeWeese-Boyd's case has already carried on for two years, and the court will need to dispute over the "ministerial exception" before proceeding to the specifics of DeWeese-Boyd's complaint.

If the courts find in favor of Gordon College, it could have ramifications for employees at 19 religious colleges and universities in Massachusetts.

Related:

Max Larkin Twitter Reporter, Edify
Max Larkin is a multimedia reporter for Edify, WBUR's education vertical.

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