Earlier this month, a Christian professor of ethics and philosophy sued Shawnee State University, a state-run institution in Ohio, for forcing him to use female pronouns to refer to a male student who identified as transgender. This is the latest episode in which traditional Christian belief about gender identity has been attacked.
The complaint alleges:
- In January 2018, a male student demanded that Dr. [Nicholas] Meriwether address him as a woman because he identified as such and threatened to have Dr. Meriwether fired if he declined. […] He declined, but offered to use whatever proper name the student preferred to accommodate this student and to make him feel as comfortable as possible without violating his own deeply-held beliefs and convictions.
- Unsatisfied, the student complained to the University. Rather than allowing the student and Dr. Meriwether to communicate their views as they each chose, the University sought to silence Dr. Meriwether and punished him for expressing views that differ from its own orthodoxy and for declining to express its mandated ideological message. […] 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.
As an active member of the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA), Dr. Meriwether “believes that God created human beings as either male or female, that this gender is fixed in each person from the moment of conception, and that it cannot be changed, regardless of an individual’s feelings or desires.”
In contrast, the university defines gender identity as “how individuals perceive themselves.” The lawsuit points out that “some sources say that there are over one hundred different options for one’s gender identity, including ones that ‘refuse to be categorized,’ that are ‘affected by mood swings,’ or that “’change depending on which friend you’re with.’” According to the University’s policies, said the complaint, “students may demand that professors refer to them by any pronoun they choose, from the standard English pronouns (e.g., “he” or “she”), to the standard pronouns applied in a nonstandard way (e.g., “they” used to refer to one person), to those invented within the last few years […] to any others a student idiosyncratically requests.” The lawsuit cited the opening graphic for examples of recently invented pronouns. In summary, the report says, “the number of possible pronouns is infinite.”
Meriwether included the acting dean of the department in the lawsuit. Before the incident occurred, she had told him that “students have a right to be referred to by their chosen gender, and faculty must comply or be disciplined.” A “professor’s academic freedom and free speech rights has no bearing on whether he must use a pronoun that reflects a student’s self-asserted gender identity.” According to the lawsuit, she initially agreed with his proposed compromise to refer to the male student only by his last name, but later changed her mind and insisted that Meriwether use feminine pronouns to refer to him.
The lawsuit also names several other university officials who displayed hostility and contempt for Meriwether’s Christian beliefs before the incident and during the internal disciplinary process. The chair of the English and Humanities Department, Meriwether’s direct supervisor, had previously showed hostility toward his religious beliefs. She had told Meriwether that Christian beliefs were “primarily motivated out of fear,” that “Christian doctrines about hell are harmful and should not be taught,” and that “religion oppresses students.” At a hearing, the university’s provost, who was also the interim president, allegedly interrupted Meriwether’s union representative constantly and laughed out loud when he explained the professor’s religious objection.
Fortunately for Dr. Meriwether, he has the best legal representation available. The Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) has taken up his case. The ADF is a highly successful legal organization that champions religious freedom cases. Their recent victories include the Hobby Lobby and Masterpiece Cakeshop cases. At the moment, Shawnee State says it is reviewing the lawsuit, and the case has not yet been heard in court.
This is not the first time that states have attempted to mandate pronoun usage, regardless of whether or not that violates a religious belief. In 2017, New York City’s Department of Education issued guidelines which instructed, “Teachers and other school staff should be made aware of and honor a student’s request to be referred to by the name and gender that corresponds to their gender identity.” Also in 2017, California passed a bill to punish state healthcare workers who “‘willfully and repeatedly’ decline to use a senior transgender patient’s ‘preferred name or pronouns’” with up to a $1,000 fine or one year of jail time.
Recent attempts to enforce a “newspeak” of pronoun heterodoxy threaten our Christian witness. Christians are not just called to love, but to speak the truth in love. That means we should not enable a person’s mental delusions by affirming the person’s self-appointed identity over and against the constraints of biology in God’s created order. While Christians should be the first to condemn acts of hatred or words of derision towards people struggling with their gender identity, we should also bring the message of hope and truth by affirming what God says about people in Genesis 1:27: “in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” The freedom to use gender pronouns consistent with Biblical teaching is an important part of communicating the message of the Bible, and if speaking truth draws persecution, then so be it.