March 29, 2021
The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday ruled in favor of a “devout Christian” professor who was disciplined because he “refused to refer to students by their ‘preferred pronouns’” after a 2016 mandate at a small state university in Ohio ordered him to do so. The court said the university’s directive botched the law.
The court held that university officials and a lower federal district court failed to recognize the professor’s First Amendment rights to free speech and to the free exercise of his religion. The court decried the notion that a university might “wield alarming power to compel ideological conformity.”
The professor, Nicholas Meriwether, “strives to live out his faith each day,” the Sixth Circuit’s opinion reads. As such, “his religious convictions influence how he thinks about human nature, marriage, gender, sexuality, morality, politics, and social issues.” Meriwether believes that “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,” the opinion adds.
The college, Shawnee State University, employed Meriwether for 25 years. He taught courses in philosophy, religion, ethics, and the “History of Christian Thought.”
According to the Sixth Circuit, a university directive said that any professor who “refused to use a pronoun that reflects a student’s self-asserted gender identity” would face discipline. When Meriwether questioned officials about what role his own beliefs played in what he was allowed to say, he was told he must call students what they wished to be called “regardless of” his own “convictions or views on the subject.”
“By forbidding Meriwether from describing his views on gender identity even in his syllabus, Shawnee State silenced a viewpoint that could have catalyzed a robust and insightful in-class discussion,” the court noted.
“Traditionally, American universities have been beacons of intellectual diversity and academic freedom,” the court said. “They have prided themselves on being forums where controversial ideas are discussed and debated. And they have tried not to stifle debate by picking sides. But Shawnee State chose a different route: It punished a professor for his speech on a hotly contested issue. And it did so despite the constitutional protections afforded by the First Amendment. The district court dismissed the professor’s free-speech and free-exercise claims. We see things differently and reverse.”