Can a Christian professor be disciplined or fired for refusing to call a transgender student by a preferred pronoun? We may find out. The professor’s lawsuit was initially dismissed, but last week a federal appeals court reinstated the case, citing plausible violation of his First Amendment rights.
Nicholas Meriwether has taught philosophy for years at Shawnee State University, a public school with about 3,500 students in southern Ohio. As the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals tells the story, in an opinion by Judge Amul Thapar, Mr. Meriwether’s pedagogical method is to hold Socratic discussions, while addressing students as “Mr.” or “Ms.” to create an atmosphere of seriousness.
After a class in early 2018, a student whom Mr. Meriwether had called “sir” approached and requested to be addressed with feminine pronouns. The professor said he wasn’t sure that he could comply, Judge Thapar writes, “because his sincerely held religious beliefs prevented him from communicating messages about gender identity that he believes are false.” The student allegedly got hostile, saying “I guess this means I can call you a [expletive],” while promising that Mr. Meriwether would be fired.
Mr. Meriwether’s dean suggested a way forward: He could simply quit using all sex-based references, including basic pronouns like “he” and “she.” The professor objected that trying to speak like this would be impossible, but he began calling the transgender student by last name only. Complaining to administrators, the student threatened to hire a lawyer.
The university’s Title IX office said Mr. Meriwether’s refusal “to recognize” the student’s identity was “disparate treatment” that amounted to “a hostile environment.” A formal warning was placed in his file, urging him to change his ways or face “further corrective actions.”
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