An Ohio professor who refused to use his transgender student’s chosen pronouns has won a First Amendment case in a federal appeals court. The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously that Shawnee State University violated the rights of Prof. Nicholas Meriwether to freedom of speech and religion by reprimanding him for ignoring school rules that required him to address a trans woman as Ms. instead of Mr. The court’s decision was written up by a judge appointed by Donald Trump (surprise surprise).
Meriwether claimed that both biology and his religious beliefs were behind his decision. While he claims he would have happily called the student by her chosen first name, which was feminine, he couldn’t in good conscience refer to her as Ms. since he doesn’t believe transgender people exist. “In other words, to refer to a student in such a way that I imply something that is not true, that I know to be false, to effectively lie, and so violate my conscience as a philosopher and as a Christian,” he wrote in an Op-Ed in The Hill.
The First Amendment issue was at the heart of this case. It states that everyone has the right to freedom of speech and religion. What it does not guarantee, however, is a lack of consequences to that speech, which is why this was such a contentious issue. “The First Amendment interests are especially strong here because Meriwether’s speech also relates to his core religious and philosophical beliefs,” Judge Amul Thapar wrote in a lengthy decision. “If professors lacked free-speech protections when teaching, a university would wield alarming power to compel ideological conformity.”
Meriwether can now file a lawsuit seeking damages. He had been a professor at Shawnee State University for 25 years when, in 2016, the student complained to school administration that he continued to address her as Mr. despite her identifying as a woman. However, the court ruling means that Meriwether can now file a case against Shawnee State for attempting to force him to comply. “Nobody should be forced to contradict their core beliefs just to keep their job,” said John Bursch, a lawyer with the conservative Alliance Defending Freedom who represented Meriwether in court.
This is a tough situation. On the one hand, Meriwether is absolutely free to have his beliefs, however wrong they are, about religion and identity and it shouldn’t have to align with the school’s in order for him to do his job. However, it also wouldn’t harm him to simply show the student enough respect and courtesy to simply use the Ms. instead of Mr. Refusing to do so just makes him come off like a bit of a jerk, but what can you do?
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