The 6th US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on Friday that Ohio philosophy professor Nicholas Meriwether can sue Shawnee State University for violating his First Amendment rights after he was admonished in 2016 for not using a transgender student’s preferred pronouns, as it went against his Christian beliefs.
The appeals panel stated that Shawnee State gave Meriwether a written warning to follow its non-discrimination policy, demanding he use feminine pronouns when referring to the transgender student. If he refuses to comply, he could be subjected to suspension without pay or termination.
Meriwether argued that the campus mandate will force him to go against “biological reality” and his religious beliefs. Circuit Judge Amul Thapar wrote in the majority opinion that the professor was simply caught in a “hotly contested” social issue and was punished for his stance.
Thapar noted that the Portsmouth-based university did not have substantial evidence to prove that Meriwether’s choice to reject the student’s request negatively affected his responsibilities.
“If professors lacked free-speech protections when teaching, a university would wield alarming power to compel ideological conformity,” Thapar wrote.
The judge further added that Shawnee State has “silenced a viewpoint that could have catalyzed a robust and insightful in-class discussion” when it refused the professor the right to share his views on gender identity, even in the class syllabus.
The issue began when Meriwether repeatedly rejected a student’s request to be referred to with feminine pronouns, prompting the student to file a complaint against him and how he had created a “hostile” and discriminatory environment.
The faculty union assisted Meriwether in filing a grievance since the warning letter can make it difficult to find another job. However, administration officials rebuffed his grievance. Meriwether then sued the school, but the lawsuit was dismissed in February 2020.
An appeal was filed in November 2020 and with this new ruling, the lawsuit will now be returned to a Cincinnati judge. John Bursch, an Alliance Defending Freedom lawyer who represented Meriwether, agreed with the decision saying, “Nobody should be forced to contradict their core beliefs just to keep their job.”