A small, public university in Ohio agreed last week to pay one of its professors $400,000 after it rebuked him for refusing to use a transgender student's preferred pronouns.
Shawnee State University, in Portsmouth, roughly 85 miles south of Columbus, warned Nicholas Meriwether, a philosophy professor, in 2018 about not using the pronouns.
In response, Meriwether, who is an evangelical Christian, filed a federal lawsuit against the university that year, contending that officials violated his constitutional rights by compelling him to speak in a way that contradicts his religious beliefs.
The settlement of the case follows a three-year legal battle that ended last year, with the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in Meriwether’s favor. Meriwether's legal representation, the Alliance Defending Freedom, applauded the agreement to compensate him.
“This case forced us to defend what used to be a common belief — that nobody should be forced to contradict their core beliefs just to keep their job,” Travis Barham, senior counsel for the alliance, said in a statement last week. “Dr. Meriwether went out of his way to accommodate his students and treat them all with dignity and respect, yet his university punished him because he wouldn’t endorse an ideology that he believes is false."
Meriwether's settlement included a payout for his attorney fees and assurance from the university that he will "never be mandated to use pronouns, including if a student requests pronouns that conflict with his or her biological sex," according to ADF's statement.
The Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian law firm based in Arizona, has a decadeslong track record of litigating against LGBTQ rights, and has been labeled an anti-LGBTQ “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a designation ADF disputes. According to its website, the group aims to secure “generational wins” to ensure that “the law respects God’s creative order for marriage, the family, and human sexuality.”
Over the last decade or so, the ADF's funding has more than doubled, from over $34.5 million in 2011 to more than $76 million in 2021.
Shawnee State said in a statement last week that it "adamantly" denies that it "deprived Dr. Meriwether of his free speech rights or his rights to freely exercise his religion," and called the settlement an "economic decision."
"We continue to stand behind a student’s right to a discrimination-free learning environment as well as the rights of faculty, visitors, students and employees to freely express their ideas and beliefs," the university said. "Over the course of this lawsuit, it became clear that the case was being used to advance divisive social and political agendas at a cost to the university and its students. That cost is better spent on fulfilling Shawnee State’s mission of service to our students, families and community."