New podcast: Rising tensions between religious liberty, pronoun wars, academic freedom, etc.

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My name is Terry Lee Mattingly. However, when I converted to Eastern Orthodoxy, I took the name of a patron saint — St. Brendan the Navigator.

Let’s pretend that I am young and attending a state university right now and that I have decided to require professors to address me as “Holy St. Brendan the Navigator.” It is, after all, my name. While we are at it, let’s say that all of the Catholic and Orthodox students take the same tack, if their saint names are different then the names they were given at birth.

Some professors would wince, but go along with this. But let’s say that one professor is very secular, a Marxist perhaps, and he refuses — stating that my request violates his personal convictions. I threaten to sue, along with other students in the same situation. Game on.


How would the leaders of this taxpayer-funded public university respond? Would this be treated as a natural request on my part, with the understanding that any refusal would attack my sense of identity? What if I requested that my university ID card state my name as “St. Brendan the Navigator”?

It’s a crazy question, of course. But it would — at a state university — raise issues about the First Amendment (free speech and religious liberty) and academic freedom. These questions were at the heart of this week’s “Crossroads” podcast discussion. Click here to tune that in. [This episode also includes a bizarre gaffe when — I’m wrestling with a painful medical condition right now — I messed up my own saint’s name, mixing St. Brendan’s title with that of St. Nicholas of Myra. Listen for it.]

At the heart of the podcast discussion is a timely question: Can the state force the professor to recognize and even affirm — with public speech — beliefs that violate his conscience?

Now, as readers probably guessed right from the get go, this podcast focuses on another matter of personal identity — the degree to which professors can be forced to cooperate with students who chose to use any of the myriad and evolving gender pronouns linked to the LGBTQ+ movement. We looked at a Washington Post story with this headline: “A professor was reprimanded for refusing to use a transgender student’s pronouns. A court says he can sue.

Now, when these clashes take part in PRIVATE schools — left or right, religious or secular — it’s clear (pending passage of the Equality Act) that these doctrinally defined institutions have a right to create belief and lifestyle covenants that settle issues of this kind. Students can chose to affirm these beliefs, freely signing on the dotted line, or go to school somewhere else.

But what about state schools built and operated with tax dollars? Can these institutions create policies, rules and de facto doctrines that settle issues of these kinds? Clashes over issues of this kind have increased in recent decades and they are sure to increase, no matter what happens with the Equality Act.

Here is the overture for the Post report:

It was the first day of the spring semester at Shawnee State University, and a student in Nicholas Meriwether’s political philosophy class hung back to have a word with the professor.

During the lecture, Meriwether had called the student “sir” when she raised her hand. That was incorrect, she told him. She identified as a woman, she said, and asked him to address her accordingly.

Meriwether hadn’t previously met the student — identified in court documents as Jane Doe — or received any information about her sex or gender identity, according to court documents. But he refused her request, saying his Christian faith prevented him from talking about gender in a way he believed to be false. He instead proposed calling her only by her last name.

As you would expect, experts on both sides of this dispute made predictable arguments using familiar images.

However, if readers read this next passage carefully they will, if they follow church-state debates carefully, note an important hole in the Post report. Hint: It’s linked to the actual contents of the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (as opposed to the often misleading statements about RFRA seen in media coverage in recent years):

The conservative legal advocacy group Alliance for Defending Freedom, which represents Meriwether, called Friday’s ruling a victory for freedom of speech and religious liberty.

“This case forced us to defend what used to be a common belief — that nobody should be forced to contradict their core beliefs just to keep their job,” ADF senior counsel John Bursch said in a statement. “We are very pleased that the 6th Circuit affirmed the constitutional right of public university professors to speak and lead discussions, even on hotly contested issues.”

But Andrew Koppelman, a constitutional law expert at Northwestern University who has followed the litigation, said the court’s reasoning opened the door for discrimination.

“As a hypothetical, let’s suppose that a professor thinks that the honorific ‘Mr.’ is okay, but not for African Americans because it gives African Americans a respect he doesn’t believe they deserve,” Koppelman said in an interview. “I think a court would say that that alone would create a hostile environment. I don’t understand why applying the wrong honorific only to transgender students doesn’t create a hostile environment also.”

In cases involving RFRA defenses, no one assumes that the religious believer automatically wins. The key is that their legal teams get to attempt a RFRA defense — under the limitations defined in the legislation.

Here’s a crucial point: It would be easy for someone to create a religion out of whole cloth and then claim that its traditions and doctrines support a person’s beliefs and actions. Courts have a right to ask questions about the history of these beliefs and whether they are held by common or even traditional faith groups. Example: Doctrinal claims by believers in a newly formed Church of Cannabis will be viewed with more skepticism than those of Native Americans defending centuries of worship using Peyote.

Thus, it would have helped if the Post had identified the faith claimed by this philosophy professor. Catholic? Evangelical? Member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? This would lead to discussions of centuries of doctrine on matters of sex and gender — in the past and in the present.

Now, in this current age, how many religious traditions teach that it is wrong to affirm the rights of African Americans or to show them respect, when it comes to the use of honorific titles? What is the strength — under RFRA legislation — of that claim?

In other words, there is no RFRA claim there at all.

That’s a straw man argument. Did anyone involved in the editing of this story know that? Also, it would have been timely to note that the Equality Act — currently in the U.S. Senate — would radically undercut RFRA defenses in precisely these kinds of cases, including (it appears) in religious schools, hospitals, parachurch groups and ministries that deal with the public.

That’s another highly relevant topic that needed to be mentioned in this report.

There are many other interesting twists and turns in the Post story. For example, why not simply drop the use of pronouns altogether, with professors referring to all students by their last names?

Read it all. And enjoy the podcast and, please, pass it along to others.

FIRST IMAGE: From the University of Michigan’s Humanities Collaboratory website.

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