Professor Who Was Disciplined After Refusing to Call Student by Her Pronouns Can Now Sue the University

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A federal court ruled that a professor in Ohio who was reprimanded by the school after refusing to call a transgender student by her pronouns can now sue the university.

A philosophy professor at an Ohio university refused to follow a school policy that required the use of transgender student's pronouns. Nicholas Meriwether, who has worked at Shawnee State University for 25 years, filed a lawsuit in 2018 after the school disciplined him, but a district court dismissed the case for lack of standing, according to reports.

But on Friday, a three-judge panel from the 6th US Circuit Court of Appeals sent the lawsuit back to a lower court where the professor can reintroduce his argument, which claims his rights of free speech and religion and right to due process were both violated, according to a court opinion.

Shawnee State University, which has over 3,600 students enrolled, punished Meriwether for "his speech on a hotly contested issue," reads the opinion. 

The issue at hand was whether the student should be called by their preferred pronoun. In this specific case, the professor called the student "sir" when she raised her hand in class. Privately, the student asked the professor to call her "she."

Over the course of a semester, the professor failed to abide by the student's requests, which were protected by the university's standards.

The university informed professors at the start of the school year that faculty must "refer to students by their preferred pronouns" and would face discipline if they did not comply.

Meriwether asked for clarification if they had a moral or religious objection, to which the university said it "didn't matter," according to a court opinion.

The school added that the policy applied, "regardless of the professor's convictions or views."

In a political philosophy course taught by Meriwether, he chose to lead the discussion by addressing students by "Mr." or "Ms" to "foster an atmosphere of seriousness and mutual respect."

Meriwether allegedly called the student "sir" without being provided the student's sex or gender identity by the university. The student requested, after class, that Meriwether "refer [to them] as a woman" and use "feminine titled and pronouns," the opinion said. 

The professor then said he "wasn't sure if he could comply" with the student's demands, claiming it went against his Christian principles and beliefs.

Over the course of the semester, there were several complaints made by the student against Meriwether, who reportedly continued to fail to call her by her preferred pronoun. He offered to refer to the student only by her last name, but that wasn't enough. 

The Dean of the university ultimately sent a formal letter reiterating that he must call the student by her preferred pronouns and if Meriwether did not comply, there would be an investigation and the possibility of disciplinary action.

The investigation concluded that the professor created a "hostile" environment and a formal warning was put on his file. He could face suspension without pay and termination if he still did not comply.

In February 2020, a federal judge ruled in favor of the university. But Meriwether appealed in November and his case is now going to be sent back tothe lower court.

"Nobody should be forced to contradict their core beliefs just to keep their job," the vice president of Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian advocacy group, said in a statement, CNN reported.

The group called Friday's ruling that has revived the professor's lawsuit a "victory" for freedom of speech and religious freedom.

This case sheds light on various legal disputes involving the rights of transgender people and the scope of discrimination law in the country. A similar lawsuit is taking place in Virginia involving a high school French teacher who sued school officials after being fired for refusing to call a transgender student by their preferred pronouns, the Washington Post reported.