Note from the Editor: Mr. Lorence's organization, Alliance Defending Freedom, was retained by Gordon College to file an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court, although he has had no direct involvement in the case. The Federalist Society takes no positions on particular legal and public policy matters. Any expressions of opinion are those of the authors. We do invite responses from our readers. To join the debate, please email us at [email protected].


DeWeese-Boyd v. Gordon College is an important case involving the scope of the First Amendment’s “ministerial exception,” which protects employment decisions made by religious groups.  In this case, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled unanimously that although Gordon College is a Christian religious institution, the ministerial exception does not apply to Margaret DeWeese-Boyd’s position at the college as associate professor of social work.[1] DeWeese-Boyd’s lawsuit alleges Gordon College discriminated against her by denying her application to become a full professor based on her sex and her association with LGBTQ+ individuals, and the court’s decision allows that lawsuit to proceed.[2]

The United States Supreme Court has recognized that the First Amendment creates a “ministerial exception” to protect from government review and interference the decisions of religious organizations to choose their “ministers,” such as their leaders and teachers. This means a court cannot use a lawsuit to review and possibly override a religious group’s decision to select or reject a person to serve as one of its ministers.

For example, the Supreme Court applied the ministerial exception in a discrimination lawsuit filed by a teacher (who was also an ordained minister) fired from her job at a Lutheran school. In Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Church and School v. E.E.O.C, the Supreme Court ruled that:

Requiring a church to accept or retain an unwanted minister, or punishing a church for failing to do so, intrudes upon more than a mere employment decision. Such action interferes with the internal governance of the church, depriving the church of control over the selection of those who will personify its beliefs.[3]

The Supreme Court has since expanded the scope of the ministerial exception to include teachers whose jobs required them to teach religious tenets, as well as other subjects, in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, which consolidated two cases involving the termination of teachers in Roman Catholic parochial schools in California.[4]

In DeWeese-Boyd v. Gordon College, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court applied these precedents to decide two questions: 1) whether Gordon College was a religious institution covered by the ministerial exception, and 2) whether the professor of social work was a “minister” under this First Amendment doctrine.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court first explained the challenges created by exempting religious organizations from discrimination lawsuits brought by employees serving in ministerial positions:

The application of the ministerial exception could eclipse, and thereby eliminate, civil law protection against discrimination within a religious institution; in contrast, the decision not to apply the exception could allow civil authorities to interfere with who is chosen to propagate religious doctrine, a violation of our country’s historic understanding of the separation of church and State set out in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.[5]

In answering the first question, the court had no problem finding that Gordon College was a religious institution. It pointed to obvious evidence of the college’s Christian mission. For example, the Faculty Handbook calls the school a “Christian community.”[6] Its bylaws state that Gordon College is dedicated to “[t]he historic, evangelical, biblical faith.”[7] The court cited the testimony of Gordon College President D. Michael Lindsay, who said, “at Gordon, there are no nonsacred disciplines . . . Every subject matter that we pursue is informed by, shaped by, the Christian tradition.”[8] The court concluded by saying, “[u]pon review of the abundant record concerning Gordon’s obvious religious character, we conclude that it is a religious institution.”[9]

In regard to the second question, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that DeWeese-Boyd’s job as a professor of social work was not a “minister” position protected by the First Amendment’s ministerial exception.

The court came to this conclusion by following the directive from the U.S. Supreme Court on how to determine when a position is one protected by the ministerial exception. The U.S. Supreme Court “emphasized a functional analysis,”[10] the Massachusetts high court said, then it quoted Our Lady of Guadalupe School: “What matters, is what an employee does.”[11] That means that a reviewing court must “take all relevant circumstances into account and . . . determine whether each particular position implicated the fundamental purpose of the exception.”[12]

The court then compared the duties of the two parochial school teachers the U.S. Supreme Court found to be ministers in Our Lady of Guadalupe to the duties of Professor DeWeese-Boyd at Gordon College. It found nothing in Prof. DeWeese-Boyd’s “title or training to provide decisive insight into resolving the difficult question whether she was a minister.”[13] The court also stated that none of Prof. DeWeese-Boyd’s duties at Gordon College were similar to the duties of the teachers in Our Lady of Guadalupe School:

DeWeese-Boyd was not required to, and did not, teach classes on religion, pray with her students, or attend chapel with her students, like the plaintiffs in Our Lady of Guadalupe, 140 S. Ct. at 2066, nor did she lead students in devotional exercises or lead chapel services, like the plaintiff in Hosanna-Tabor, 565 U.S. at 192. We consider this a significant difference.[14]

The court then considered evidence showing that Gordon College considered its faculty members to be Christian ministers. In October 2016, Gordon College added this provision to its Faculty Handbook:

One of the distinctives of Gordon College is that each member of faculty is expected to participate actively in the spiritual formation of our students into godly, biblically faithful ambassadors for Christ. Faculty members should seek to engage our students in meaningful ways to strengthen them in their faith walks with Christ. In the Gordon College context, faculty members are both educators and ministers to our students.[15]

The court downplayed the significance of this evidence that the college’s professors are Christian ministers by pointing out that the legal counsel for the college drafted it, and that the college did not inform the faculty of this change to the handbook.[16] Many professors disputed this added language, saying it was inaccurate, misleading and a significant departure from the way the faculty members perceived their responsibilities and duties at the college.[17]

Additionally, the Massachusetts high court grappled with Gordon College’s requirement that professors integrate their Christian faith into the academic disciplines they taught.[18] The court quoted school materials stating that “[t]he social work curriculum ‘is informed by a Christian understanding of individuals, communities, and societies,’ and seeks the ‘integration and application of social work and Christian values . . . .’”[19] The court recognized that Gordon College required Professor DeWeese-Boyd to conduct her job with “integrative responsibility,”[20] that is, to apply Christian principles to the “decidedly nonsectarian”[21] field of social work. The court found the college’s requirement that professors integrate the Christian faith with their teaching to be “an important aspect of being a professor at Gordon.”[22]

However, the court declined to expand the ministerial exception this broadly because the U.S. Supreme Court had not yet done so. The cases from the U.S. Supreme Court involved teachers with specific duties of “teaching . . . prescribed religious doctrine, or leading students in prayer or religious ritual.”[23] The college did not require Prof. DeWeese-Boyd to do any of that. Without more direction from relevant Supreme Court precedent, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court declined to rule that the ministerial exception applied to DeWeese-Boyd’s position as a professor of social work.[24]

Therefore, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court upheld the decision of the trial court finding that Prof. DeWeese-Boyd’s teaching position did not make her a “minister” for purposes of the First Amendment’s ministerial exception doctrine, which would have exempted Gordon College from her lawsuit.

Gordon College has appealed this decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, which will likely conference the case for consideration in December 2021.


[1] DeWeese-Boyd v. Gordon College, 487 Mass. 31, 33, 163 N.E.3d 1000 (Mass. 2021).

[2] Id. at 34.

[3] 565 U.S. 171, 188 (2012).

[4] 140 S. Ct. 2049 (2020).

[5] DeWeese-Boyd, 487 Mass. at 32.

[6] Id. at 35.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Id. at 45.

[10] Id. at 47.

[11] Our Lady of Guadalupe School, 140 S. Ct at 2064.

[12] DeWeese-Boyd, 487 Mass. at 46-47 (quoting Our Lady of Guadalupe, 140 S. Ct. at 2067).

[13] Id. at 49.

[14] Id. at 47.

[15] Id. at 37-38 (emphasis added).

[16] Id. at 38.

[17] Id.

[18] Id. at 47.

[19] Id.

[20] Id. at 48.

[21] Id. at 47.

[22] Id. at 48.

[23] Id.

[24] Id. at 54-55.