Professor Nicholas Meriwether had taught at Shawnee State University in Portsmouth, Ohio for 25 years until the 2016-17 school year, when he was disciplined for refusing to call a male student, who wished to be identified as a female, by female pronouns. The university at first accepted the professor’s proposed compromise of calling the student only by his last name, but later reneged and demanded that the professor use only female pronouns with that particular student.
That, according to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, likely violated Meriwether’s freedom of speech and free exercise of religion. In its opinion reversing a trial court, which had dismissed the professor’s claims before trial, the unanimous three-judge appellate panel rejected the university’s argument that educators have no First Amendment rights in the classroom.
“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.”
Meriwether’s Christian faith informs his belief that men cannot be women, and vice versa. Forcing him to speak contrary to that belief on a matter of public concern, using a student’s “preferred pronouns,” was impermissible government-compelled speech, according to the court.
The court also pointed to the unacceptable religious hostility shown by officials at Shawnee State toward Meriwether’s faith and religious claims. The professor’s department chair belittled his Christian faith, said that religion “oppresses students,” and stated that its presence in universities was “counterproductive.” Christians in particular, she said, were “motivated by fear” and that Christian professors should be banned from teaching courses on, of all things, Christianity.
The university Provost was equally hostile, interrupting and preventing Meriwether’s representative from presenting the professor’s defense, laughing out loud at his religious beliefs.
That anti-religious hostility, according to the 6th Circuit, was the same type of offense committed against Christian baker Jack Phillips by the Colorado Civil Rights Commission that the U.S. Supreme Court found so offensive and unconstitutional in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission.
Meriwether is represented by Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) Senior Counsel and Vice President of Appellate Advocacy John Bursch, who applauded the 6th Circuit decision in a press release on ADF’s website.
“This case forced us to defend what used to be a common belief—that nobody should be forced to contradict their core beliefs just to keep their job,” Bursch said. “We are very pleased that the 6th Circuit affirmed the constitutional right of public university professors to speak and lead discussions, even on hotly contested issues. The freedoms of speech and religion must be vigorously protected if universities are to remain places where ideas can be debated and learning can take place.”
It’s possible the university could appeal this decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. Otherwise, the case will go back to the trial court where Prof. Meriwether will be allowed to present his case in full. The Daily Citizen will continue to monitor this case and keep you updated.