MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: Up next, reigning in university thought police.
A federal appeals court waded into the debate over gender pronouns last Friday.
A unanimous panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit upheld a Christian professor’s right to not address students by their preferred pronouns.
MARY REICHARD, HOST: Five years ago, Shawnee State University in Portsmouth, Ohio, disciplined Professor Nicholas Meriwether for declining to address a male student with feminine pronouns.
That sparked a years-long legal battle over Meriwether’s First Amendment rights. That battle has seen a few twists and turns. Here to fill us in on the case is Steve West.
He’s an attorney and writes about religious liberty issues for WORLD Digital. Good morning, Steve!
STEVE WEST, GUEST: Good morning, Mary.
REICHARD: Well, we touched on the origin of this case a moment ago, but fill us in here on what happened. A biologically male student wanted to be addressed as a female, and Professor Meriwether said what?
WEST: He said no, I can’t do that. Picture this interaction: The student who by appearance is male demands to be addressed with feminine pronouns, is openly hostile, profane, and tells Meriwether that he’ll have him fired. Yet he held firm and reported the incident to school administrators.
What he told them was that he believes “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.”
REICHARD: Was that it? It’s either my way or the student’s way?
WEST: No, he offered a couple of alternatives. He said, “look, I’ll just use the students last name and no pronoun,” and initially that was accepted. But the student complained again.
REICHARD: Okay, what was the university’s response then?
WEST: School administrators gave him an ultimatum: address the student with feminine pronouns or else be disciplined. Once again, Meriwether suggested an accommodation. He said, “What if I use the requested feminine pronouns but place a disclaimer in the course syllabus explaining my views?
REICHARD: I take it that wasn’t good enough for the school?
WEST: No, it wasn’t. The provost of the school laughed at him. The department head told him Christianity was based on fear and shouldn’t be taught about at the school. In the end, a letter of reprimand was placed in the professor’s file finding that he had created a hostile environment in the classroom with a warning that further action would be taken.
MR: Alright, so at that point, Meriwether sued to assert his First Amendment rights. And that case bounced around in federal courts for a while?
WEST: Right. Long process, but he lost in the trial court, then appealed.
MR: What was Meriwether’s legal argument? And what did the school argue?
WEST: He said this is about my right to free speech and free exercise of religion. He said that while I can’t say everything I want, as I work for the government, when I am speaking on a matter of public concern and in an environment that should be encouraging intellectual debate, I should be able to speak freely and consistent with my religious beliefs. He said the university was trying to compel him to speak words he disagreed with.
The university said this is no more than calling roll—a perfunctory kind of thing—and we have a right to tell you how to do it.
REICHARD: So what did the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals have to say in its ruling last week?
WEST: The judges were unanimous in overruling the trial court. They said a professor doesn’t lose his or her First Amendment protection when they step into the classroom. They emphasized how gender identity is a hotly contested issue of public concern and one on which professors have a right to freely speak or, as in this case, not be forced to adopt a position by their speech that they disagree with.
Judge Thapar said, “If professors lacked free-speech protections when teaching, a university would wield alarming power to compel ideological conformity.”
REICHARD: So is the battle over? Has Meriwether won?
WEST: Not yet. The case goes back to the trial court so that Meriwether can actually prove what he has said—all of which, at this point, the court has assumed. The school could also ask the full appeals court to hear it, or ask the Supreme Court to review it. But the odds are against either court taking it up. School administrators may also want to find a way to diffuse this, but in the hyper-charged climate we are in, they face a lot of pressure to dig in and fight.
REICHARD: What does this ruling tell us? Does this help to define the free speech and religious rights of educators across the country?
WEST: In the university context, it’ll signal strong protection for faculty to express their viewpoint on matters of public concern—whether in teaching, research, or writing, even outside the classroom, like in social media and blog posts. Yet it will percolate through other areas like student speech in the university setting, where administrators have also adopted restrictive speech codes.
And I think it recognizes that pronouns signal a deeper issue: an ideological battle is being waged between transgender ideology and long-established views of sexuality and marriage and, at very least, as this court recognized, those topics need a robust debate.
REICHARD: You’ve thought about this for some time, Steve. Any final thoughts on this case?
WEST: Just one: This case also shows what can happen when one person stands up for what they believe and yet does so with respect and with grace. Professor Meriwether lived out Colossians 4:6, where Paul says “Let your speech be always gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer each person.” That’s a challenge to all of us.
REICHARD: Steve West writes about religious liberties for WORLD Digital. You can read his work at wng.org dot. You can also subscribe to his free weekly newsletter on First Amendment issues, Liberties. Steve, always good to have you on. Thank you!
WEST: Always a pleasure, Mary.