In Meriwether v. Hartop, et al., a professor at a public university was disciplined after he refused, based on his religious beliefs, to use female pronouns for a transgender student who preferred to be identified by female pronouns. The university had a policy requiring staff to identify students by the gender with which they identified, but the professor refused, due to his sincerely held religious beliefs. After his grievance appealing the discipline failed, he filed a lawsuit in an Ohio federal court, alleging that the university violated his rights under the First Amendment.
While the lower court dismissed the professor’s lawsuit, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed and held that the professor stated a valid First Amendment claim. Specifically, the court held that the professor’s First Amendment rights may have been violated because he has free-speech rights when he is teaching, and the use of gender pronouns was a topic of public concern that is currently being intensely debated across the country. The court noted at the outset of its opinion that American universities pride “themselves on being forums where controversial ideas are discussed and debated.” The court also held that the professor’s interests in expressing his views outweighed those of the university. Further, the court held that the university may have violated the professor’s rights when it disciplined him for not following the pronoun policy because the professor alleged the university officials exhibited hostility toward his religious beliefs and conducted a biased investigation into his conduct.
Though the Sixth Circuit’s decision was issued last year, it led to the university and the professor recently settling the case. According to the parties’ statements on the settlement, the university will pay the professor $400,000 in damages and legal fees and remove a written warning from his personnel file. The university said it was an “economic decision” but denied any legal violations.
The Sixth Circuit’s decision in Meriwether is one of the very few that has ruled against a plaintiff in a transgender-rights case. Illinois is not covered by the Sixth Circuit, so this decision is not binding on Illinois schools, but it illustrates the stakes of these types of cases. Notably, although the Seventh Circuit, which has jurisdiction over federal claims in Illinois, has not yet ruled on a school-employee preferred-pronouns case, it should be very soon.
The Seventh Circuit heard oral argument on January 20, 2022, in Kluge v. Brownsburg Community School Corporation, a K-12 case with facts similar to Meriwether. The trial court ruled against the teacher last year. We anticipate an appellate ruling in Kluge, which will be binding on Illinois schools, within the next few months.
Contact any member of our Labor/Personnel practice group to discuss the impact of this case on your schools.