When Diversity Messaging and Beliefs Collide to Create Liability to an Organization - American Society of Employers - Anthony Kaylin

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When Diversity Messaging and Beliefs Collide to Create Liability to an Organization

pronounsIn today’s world, gender identity is a hot topic and extremely fluid.  At the same time, “old school” values, many times from religious upbringing, will collide with “new world” values.  As the platinum rule for diversity is “treat others as they want to be treated,” this brings up the situation when in diversity neither side can treat the others as they would want.

This point is illustrated in the case of Meriwether v. Shawnee State University, No. 20-3289 (U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, 3/26/22). Nicholas Meriwether is a philosophy professor at Shawnee State University, a small public college in Portsmouth, Ohio. For 25 of those years, Professor Meriwether has been a fixture at the school. He has served in the faculty senate, designed a bachelor’s degree program in Philosophy and Religion, led study-abroad trips, and taught countless students in classes ranging from Ethics to the History of Christian Thought.

Professor Meriwether is also a devout Christian. He strives to live out his faith each day. Meriwether believes that “God created human beings as either male or female, that this sex is fixed in each person from the moment of conception, and that it cannot be changed, regardless of an individual’s feelings or desires.” He also believes that he cannot “affirm as true ideas and concepts that are not true.” Being faithful to his religion was never a problem at Shawnee State.

Then one day in 2016 Shawnee State emailed the faculty informing them that they had to refer to students by their “preferred pronoun[s].” Meriwether asked university officials for more details about the new pronoun policy, and the officials confirmed that professors would be disciplined if they “refused to use a pronoun that reflects a student’s self-asserted gender identity.” What if a professor had moral or religious objections? That didn’t matter; the policy applied “regardless of the professor’s convictions or views on the subject.”

Even his Chair did not respect his beliefs.  When he approached the Chair of his department to discuss his concerns about the newly announced rules, the Chair was derisive and scornful. Knowing that Meriwether had successfully taught courses on Christian thought for decades, they said that Christians are “primarily motivated out of fear” and should be “banned from teaching courses regarding that religion.”

The stage was set.  Two years later, on the first day of class, Meriwether was using the Socratic method to lead a discussion in his course on Political Philosophy. When using that method, he addresses students as “Mr.” or “Ms.” He believes “this formal manner of addressing students helps them view the academic enterprise as a serious, weighty endeavor” and “foster[s] an atmosphere of seriousness and mutual respect.” In that class, one of the students Meriwether called on was Doe. According to Meriwether, “no one . . . would have assumed that [Doe] was female” based on Doe’s outward appearances. Thus, Meriwether responded to a question from Doe by saying, “Yes, sir.” This was Meriwether’s first time meeting Doe, and the university had not provided Meriwether with any information about Doe’s sex or gender identity.

Doe got upset. Doe approached Meriwether and “demanded” that Meriwether “refer to [Doe] as a woman” and use “feminine titles and pronouns.” He explained that he wasn’t sure if he could comply with Doe’s demands. Doe became hostile – circling around Meriwether at first, and then approaching him in a threatening manner: “I guess this means I can call you a cu--.” Long story short, Doe complained again and the school threatened Meriwether with discipline.  During the rest of the semester, Meriwether called on Doe using Doe’s last name. Doe excelled and participated as much or more than any other student in the course. At the end of the semester, Meriwether awarded Doe a “high grade.”

Then the school launched a formal investigation concerning the situation.  The school found Meriwether in violation of their policy and also brought a “formal charge” against him under the faculty’s collective bargaining agreement.  Without even considering Meriwether’s religious beliefs or even discussing any accommodation, the school placed a formal warning in his file.

Eventually Meriwether filed a lawsuit against the school to rescind the warning letter. The case was dismissed at trial court and appealed.   First, the 6th Circuit stated that professors at public universities retain First Amendment protections at least when engaged in core academic functions, such as teaching and scholarship and noted that if professors lacked free-speech protections when teaching, a university would wield alarming power to compel ideological conformity.  The Court then found that by forbidding Meriwether from describing his views on gender identity even in his syllabus, Shawnee State silenced a viewpoint that could have catalyzed a robust and insightful in-class discussion.  The Court then found Meriwether’s lawsuit should be reinstated because he plausibly alleged the university "violated his First Amendment rights by compelling his speech or silence and casting a pall of orthodoxy over the classroom."

Before the case could go back to trial, the University settled the case for $400,000.  Although both sides disagreed as to why there is a settlement, it comes down to this – diversity is not a one side vs. another dogma.  Diversity is really in the gray and all points of view should be considered.  Whether it’s pronouns or religious belief, diversity professionals have to navigate carefully as many competing rights intersect.

 

Source: Meriwether v. Shawnee State University, No. 20-3289 (U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, 3/26/22)

 

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