A Shawnee State University philosophy professor filed a lawsuit against the Portsmouth, Ohio, school on Nov. 5 for disciplining him because he insisted on using the courtesy title that corresponded to a student’s biological sex.
Nicholas Meriwether, a 22-year tenured faculty member, uses courtesy titles like “Mr.” and “Miss” with students’ last names in his classes. But his belief that God created humans immutably male or female puts that practice at odds with the Shawnee State nondiscrimination policy, which demands employees affirm a person’s preferred gender.
The case could force publicly funded schools to reassess their LGBT nondiscrimination policies, said Meriwether’s attorney, Travis Barham with Alliance Defending Freedom. “Public universities have no business compelling people to express views they do not hold,” Barham said. “That’s the message of this case.”
A disciplinary letter placed in Meriwether’s personnel file in June claimed he created a “hostile environment” in his political philosophy class by refusing to address a male student, Alena Bruening, as female.
Meriwether suggested to the student and school administrators that he refer to Bruening by first or last name only, with no gender-specific prefix. According to the lawsuit, Bruening took offense at the offer and responded with an obscenity. Bruening filed two discrimination complaints and threatened to have the professor fired.
Meriwether claims in a federal lawsuit that administrators violated his free speech, his religious liberty and his employment contract by demanding he submit to the university’s identity politics. The lawsuit claims Shawnee State showed animus toward Meriwether’s religious beliefs as early as 2016.
As the university was drafting the LGBT nondiscrimination policy, Meriwether warned administrators it would conflict with employees’ speech rights and religious liberty. A department chairwoman allegedly told him that religion “oppresses students,” and an administrator said forcing faculty to use objectionable speech “had no bearing” on a professor’s “academic freedom or free speech rights,” according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit also states that during a meeting about the discrimination complaint this spring, a Shawnee State administrator openly laughed when a union representative described Meriwether’s religious beliefs.
“A philosophy classroom is where you are supposed to be able to debate all issues but particularly the issues of ‘What is the essence of human nature?’” Barham said. “Not being able to discuss that or forcing professors to endorse ideological viewpoints on those issues that they don’t hold, that’s a threat to free speech and to academic freedom.”
Nancy Pearcey, an apologetics professor at Houston Baptist University, agreed Shawnee State was threatening Meriwether’s free speech.
“It’s not just a matter of courtesy when the state mandates it,” said Pearcey, who is also director of Houston Baptist’s Center for Christian Worldview. “Essentially the state is saying, ‘You must use certain words.’”
With Meriwether’s lawsuit, Pearcey believes American teachers have someone championing their rights. “I think this case is really heartening because what it shows is a few people are fighting back,” she said.
Barham said recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions favor Meriwether’s cause.
By siding with California pro-life pregnancy centers in NIFLA v. Becerra in June, the high court reaffirmed the constitutional prohibition against compelled speech. And the court’s decision this summer in favor of Christian baker Jack Phillips, who declined to make a custom cake for a same-sex wedding, showed the justices do not look kindly on hostility toward religion.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Bonnie Pritchett writes for WORLD Digital, a division of WORLD Magazine, wng.org. Reprinted from Baptist Press, baptistpress.com, news service of the Southern Baptist Convention.