We have been following the litigation involving Shawnee State Professor Nicholas Meriwether over his refusal to adopt preferred pronouns when they contradict his religious views. He previously won a major appeal. Now, the university has settled with him for $400,000 in damages and attorney’s fees as well as a pledge not to continue to sanction him over pronoun use.
At the beginning of the school year, Shawnee State emailed all faculty members to order them to refer to students by their “preferred pronoun[s].” Meriwether teaches religion and philosophy and refers to all his students using “sir,” “ma’am,” “mister” or “miss.” When Meriwether asked university officials for more details, the school confirmed that professors would be disciplined if they “refused to use a pronoun that reflects a student’s self-asserted gender identity” and the school would not recognize any ideological or religious exception.
The policy was stated as mandatory “regardless of the professor’s convictions or views on the subject.” He was further informed that such punishment would be meted out under the school’s anti-discrimination rules “because of . . . gender identity.”
The issue came to a head with an encounter described by the Court:
“In that first class, one of the students Meriwether called on was Doe. According to Meriwether, “no one . . . would have assumed that [Doe] was female” based on Doe’s outward appearances. Id. at 1474. Thus, Meriwether responded to a question from Doe by saying, “Yes, sir.” Id. This was Meriwether’s first time meeting Doe, and the university had not provided Meriwether with any information about Doe’s sex or gender identity. After class, Doe approached Meriwether and “demanded” that Meriwether “refer to [Doe] as a woman” and use “feminine titles and pronouns.” Id. at1475. This was the first time that Meriwether learned that Doe identified as a woman. So Meriwether paused before responding because his sincerely held religious beliefs prevented him from communicating messages about gender identity that he believes are false. He explained that he wasn’t sure if he could comply with Doe’s demands. Doe became hostile—circling around Meriwether at first, and then approaching him in a threatening manner: ‘I guess this means I can call you a cu–.’ Id. Doe promised that Meriwether would be fired if he did not give in to Doe’s demands.”
What is interesting is that after Doe complained, the Dean of Students and his department chair, Jennifer Pauley, came to Meriwether’s office and said that he had to use the chosen pronoun for the student. Meriwether explained that he had a religious objection but suggested a common resolution that he would use the last name of this particular student rather than use a pronoun. However, he would continue to use pronouns for other students.
As I discussed in the column, many faculty members are now abandoning the use of pronouns to avoid such complaints.The university likely spent in excess of a million dollars in the litigation. It created precedent that can now be cited by other faculty to decline to use such pronouns.