An Ohio philosophy professor, disciplined by Shawnee State University for declining to use a transgender student’s preferred personal pronouns, is appealing the dismissal of his federal lawsuit against the university.
Professor Nicholas Meriwether’s lawsuit argued that the Portsmouth, Ohio, university “denied him his right to exercise his religion under the Ohio constitution, and have breached their contract with him.” The lawsuit says that the university also denied “Meriwether’s fundamental and clearly established rights under the Free Speech and Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment.”
Meriwether, a Christian, seeks to reverse a Cincinnati-based judge’s decision that quashed his original lawsuit filed on Nov. 5, 2018. Alliance Defending Freedom, which focuses on First Amendment and religious liberty cases, is representing Meriwether. ADF filed the appeal Thursday.
“This isn’t just about a pronoun; this is about endorsing an ideology,” said ADF Senior Counsel Tyson Langhofer, director of the ADF Center for Academic Freedom, in a statement posted Thursday on ADF’s website.
“The university favors certain beliefs, and it wants to force Dr. Meriwether to cry uncle and endorse them as well. That’s neither legal nor constitutional, and neither was the process the university has used to get to this point.”
ADF’s statement offered a timeline of the lawsuit, which said the case originated in January 2018 when Meriwether was teaching a political philosophy class and “responded to a male student’s question by saying, ‘Yes, sir.’”
After class, the statement says, Meriwether was approached by the student who said he was transgender “and demanded that the professor refer to him as a woman, with feminine titles and pronouns. When Meriwether did not instantly agree, the student became belligerent and promised to get Meriwether fired.” After the student filed a complaint with university officials, a formal investigation was launched.
Consequently, “Meriwether offered to call the student by any name the student requested,” the statement said, but “University officials rejected this and anything else that would allow him to speak according to his conscience and sincerely held religious beliefs. Instead, they formally charged him, saying ‘he effectively created a hostile environment’ for the student.” Later, the statement said, “they placed a written warning in his personnel file and threatened ‘further corrective actions’ unless he articulates the university’s ideological message.”
ADF Senior Counsel Travis Barham said in the statement that “Professors don’t give up their First Amendment freedoms simply by choosing to teach. Public universities have no business trying to force people to express ideological beliefs that they do not hold. Dr. Meriwether remains committed to serving all students with respect, but he cannot express all messages or endorse all ideologies. When the university tried to force him to do this and then punished him for exercising his rights, it violated the First Amendment.”
Explaining the basis of the appeal, Barham said, “The magistrate judge misinterpreted and misapplied the law. The district court should not have adopted her recommendations and dismissed the case,” Barham maintained. “That’s why we’re asking the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit to reverse” the decision “and allow Dr. Meriwether to continue pursuing justice.”
Photo courtesy: Sharon McCutcheon/Unsplash
Tim Tune is a freelance journalist based in Fort Worth, Texas. His work has been published by Baptist Press, as well as the Dallas Morning News, the Fort Worth Business Press, Arlington Today magazine and other North Texas publications.