College pronoun police pay up
University concedes to Ohio professor who declined to use students’ preferred pronouns
An Ohio school on Thursday agreed to settle with a Christian professor after a federal appeals court last year upheld his right not to address students in class by pronouns inconsistent with their sex.
Shawnee State University agreed to pay Nicholas Meriwether $400,000 in damages as well as attorneys’ fees, according to a statement by the legal group Alliance Defending Freedom. The state-supported university also affirmed Meriwether’s right to choose when to use, or avoid using, titles or pronouns when referring to or addressing students. It agreed never again to require the professor to use pronouns, including ones conflicting with a student’s biological sex.
The college disciplined Meriwether, a Christian, in 2016 for declining to address a male student with feminine titles and pronouns. Meriwether believes sex is fixed at the point of conception. After a federal district court ruled against the professor, a unanimous appeals court panel ruled in his favor in March 2021, concluding that the school violated his First Amendment rights to free speech and free exercise of religion.
“Dr. Meriwether went out of his way to accommodate his students and treat them all with dignity and respect, yet his university punished him because he wouldn’t endorse an ideology that he believes is false,” said ADF attorney Travis Barham.
The appeals court ruling’s strong language likely persuaded school administrators to forgo a bid to have the Supreme Court review the case.
“If professors lacked free-speech protections when teaching, a university would wield alarming power to compel ideological conformity,” concluded U.S. Circuit Judge Amul Thapar, a Trump appointee. He noted that “the university derided [Meriwether] and equated his good-faith convictions with racism” rather than seeking to accommodate him.
Meriwether’s three-year battle may be over, but the conflicts central to his case are far from resolved. Two similar cases involving Virginia teachers and one involving a Kansas teacher continue to wind their way through the courts.
In March, the Virginia Supreme Court agreed to hear the case of Peter Vlaming, a high school teacher fired for avoiding the use of personal pronouns to refer to one of his students. In Loudoun County, Va., three teachers continue to challenge a school board policy forcing faculty and students to use the pronouns that students demand regardless of their biological sex.
Kansas middle school teacher Pamela Ricard sued her school district for temporarily suspending her over pronoun policy violations. On Wednesday, she asked a federal judge to bar school officials from further disciplining her for following her religious beliefs about the immutability of sex. “Consistent with my conscience, I can use a student’s requested name,” Ricard explained in an affidavit filed with the court. “But I cannot grant a student’s request to be treated differently by using pronouns that are inconsistent with a student’s biological sex.”