An Ohio philosophy professor who refused to address a transgender student by female pronouns can sue his college after a judge ruled his written warning violated his First Amendment rights.
The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Friday that Shawnee State University violated Prof. Nicholas Meriwether's freedom of speech and religion by punishing him for resisting rules forcing him to address students by terms of their choosing.
Meriwether was reprimanded in 2016 after a transgender student complained that he used of 'Mr.' instead of 'Ms.' when responding to her in class and repeatedly treated her like any other biologically male person despite her wish to be addressed as a woman.
The academic, who said the rules did not reflect 'biological reality' and contradicted his devout Christian beliefs, was given a written warning about his conduct, and said he could be suspended without pay or fired for violating its nondiscrimination policy.
Prof. Nicholas Meriwether's (pictured) refused to address a transgender feminine student as 'Ms' rather than 'Ms'
Writing for a three-judge panel, Trump-appointed Circuit Judge Amul Thapar said Meriwether was simply communicating on a 'hotly contested' matter of public concern, whether one's sex can be changed.
He also said Portsmouth-based Shawnee State offered no proof Meriwether's decision not to use feminine pronouns affected his job, hampered school operations or denied educational benefits to the student, known as Jane Doe, who received a high grade.
'If professors lacked free-speech protections when teaching, a university would wield alarming power to compel ideological conformity,' wrote Thapar.
'A university president could require a pacifist to declare that war is just, a civil rights icon to condemn the Freedom Riders, a believer to deny the existence of God, or a Soviet to address his students as 'comrades,'' he added. 'That cannot be.'
He returned the lawsuit to a Cincinnati judge who dismissed it in February 2020. Several interest groups submitted briefs supporting both sides.
The decision clears the way for Meriwether, who had taught at Shawnee State University since 1996, to appeal for damages.
Shawnee State and its lawyer did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian conservative law firm based in Arizona specializing in cases involving 'religious freedom, sanctity of life, and marriage and family,' filed the federal lawsuit on Meriwether's behalf in November 2019.
Trump-appointed Circuit Judge Amul Thapar said Meriwether was simply communicating on a 'hotly contested' matter of public concern, whether one's sex can be changed
'In January 2018, a male student demanded that Dr. Meriwether address him as a woman because he identified as such and threatened to have Dr. Meriwether fired if he declined,' the lawsuit, the text of which was obtained by NBC News, read.
'To accede to these demands would have required Dr. Meriwether to communicate views regarding gender identity that he does not hold, that he does not wish to communicate, and that would contradict (and force him to violate) his sincerely held Christian beliefs.'
The lawsuit alleged that the university 'punished' Meriwether for 'expressing views that differ from its own orthodoxy and for declining to express its mandated ideological message.'
'Continuing in their role as the self-appointed grammar police, Defendants threaten to punish him again if he continues to express his views,' the lawsuit read.
'Under their policies, all professors must refer to each student - both in and out of class - using whatever pronouns the student claims reflect his gender identity.'
Meriwether argued in his complaint that 'the number of potential gender identities is infinite' and that there are 'over one hundred different options currently available.'
John Bursch, a lawyer at the Alliance Defending Freedom, praised the decision.
'Nobody should be forced to contradict their core beliefs just to keep their job,' he said.
Shawnee State University (pictured) and its lawyer did not immediately respond to requests for comment