A Shawnee State University professor of religion and philosophy, Nicholas Meriwether, has been told by a federal court that despite his religious objections, he must use the preferred pronouns of transgender students if he wishes to keep his job. Shawnee is a four-year state university in Portsmouth, Ohio.
In late 2018, a transgender student, a male who identified as a female, approached Meriwether and asked him to use feminine pronouns for the student. According to Alliance Defending Freedom, Meriwether declined, and the student “became aggressive, circling around him, getting in his face in a threatening fashion, while telling him, ‘Then I guess this means I can call you a c**t.’” The student threatened to have the professor fired and filed a formal complaint with the university.
The university agreed with the student and formally charged the professor with creating a “hostile” environment and violating the university’s anti-discrimination policy. ADF filed a lawsuit on Meriwether’s behalf, saying, “Shawnee State officials have also ignored the Constitution, which guarantees the right of all Americans to speak freely.” The court dismissed the professor’s suit for failing to effectively prove he faced discrimination for his beliefs.
The court determined, “Plaintiff’s refusal to address a student in class in accordance with the student’s gender identity does not implicate broader societal concerns and the free speech clause of the First Amendment under the circumstances of this case,” reasoning that the use of titles is not considered speech, but is conduct in violation of the university’s anti-discrimination policies. The court further determined the professor was not compelled to use speech he morally opposed, as the university gave him the option of either removing all gendered language from his classroom or addressing each student according to his or her individual preference.
Meriwether Attempts to Compromise; No Dice
Meriwether had attempted a compromise of using the transgender student’s last name without a gendered title, differing from his classroom practice of addressing students as Mr. or Ms. and their last name. The student refused to accept this compromise, and the university viewed Meriwether’s proposition as discriminatory.
The court said the professor could have used only the last name of all students without reference to sex and chose not to. The court concluded Meriwether was not forced to espouse or express a view he disagreed with or found objectionable, determining that the use of pronouns or titles is not the expression of a belief.
The court rejected the professor’s religious objections, saying the reasonable-person standard would not consider using preferred pronouns as unreasonable and that the anti-discrimination policy is “neutral” and therefore not specifically affecting any religious group or belief. Most shockingly, the court upheld the university’s position that it could not accommodate the professor due to his religious objection, as it would then be required to make similar accommodations for racist or sexist views as well.
Strangely, the court determined Meriwether faced no form of discrimination for his religious beliefs after his superior openly laughed at his concerns during their meeting and compared his views to those of racists. Meriwether also could not prove other faculty who opposed gender identity accommodations had been treated differently than he had been. Essentially, because the university would have disciplined all faculty refusing to use preferred pronouns equally, the court decided no discrimination was present.
The Court’s Reasoning Is Unreasonable
The court’s assumptions are, of course, deeply concerning. For starters, the court simply assumed approving of a false gender identity to be a common and reasonable standard of conduct for public employees. This is an imposed view rather than an objective observation of current social standards.
This is further compounded by the court’s dismissal of the idea that the use of gender identity pronouns is something a person could reasonably find objectionable or against his personal beliefs. The idea that the situation itself is not one of “public concern” demonstrates the judge’s bias.
Jae Keniston, president of Shawnee’s LGBT organization SAGA, argued, “Since this lawsuit began, transgender students have been worried that they would have to start skipping classes or avoid particular professors because Shawnee State would no longer be able to effectively address bullying, harassment, and mistreatment of transgender students.” Clearly the university, which sided with the LGBT organization and the transgender student involved in the complaint, decided the use of preferred pronouns was an explicit expression of belief and of great social concern.
To dismiss the personal, religious beliefs of the professor as irrelevant to the issue at hand while positioning the personal beliefs of the LGBT students as fundamental is a demonstration of clear and overt bias and discrimination. If using the student’s preferred pronouns didn’t personally affect the professor, then the argument that refusing to use those pronouns negatively affected the student doesn’t hold water. The preference toward the transgender student is obvious, and both the university and the court chose an ideological side before considering the facts or the equal application of the policies in place.
Christianity Isn’t Harassment
LGBTQ Nation cheered the decision: “The Constitution doesn’t protect a Christian teacher harassing transgender students, even if it’s his ‘sincerely held religious belief.’” Considering gender-neutral language toward a student to be “harassment” or “mistreatment” is a truly remarkable standard.
Intentionally misrepresented in this discussion is the notion that the use of preferred pronouns is in any way neutral to personal beliefs. For a person to refer to a man with female pronouns, names, or titles is to participate in a specific political and social activity. To do so is to explicitly state, in public, that one accepts and promotes gender identity as a valid and legitimate reality. This is far from neutral.
The comparison of Christian views to racism and sexism, the university’s open mockery, the dismissal of religious freedom, and the claim that the professor engaged in bigotry and malice demonstrates profound religious intolerance and public shaming of conservative Christian belief. The professor recognized he was receiving an ultimatum of either publicly disavowing his religious beliefs or losing his career. In response, he attempted to provide a reasonable compromise that respected the student. The student and university chose to enforce the ultimatum, and sadly, the U.S. District Court of Southern Ohio agreed.