The ACLU of Massachusetts today filed a civil rights lawsuit on behalf of tenured philosophy professor Lauren Barthold charging Gordon College with retaliating against her because she made public statements disagreeing with Gordon’s president who had asked President Obama to allow federal contractors, on the basis of religion, to discriminate against LGBTQ people in hiring.
“This case is important to preserving academic freedom and preventing the violation, in the name of religion, of important rights to be free from discrimination and retaliation in the workplace," said Joshua Solomon of Pollack Solomon Duffy LLP, cooperating attorney for the ACLU of Massachusetts. “Although Gordon describes itself as a Christian liberal arts college, Gordon's faculty members like Lauren Barthold are not ministers, and Gordon is not a seminary or a house of worship. It is a liberal arts college and is subject to Massachusetts laws prohibiting retaliation against its employees, including its faculty, who speak critically about important issues of the day," he said.
In July 2014, D. Michael Lindsay, president of the college, signed a letter to President Obama urging him to create a religious exception to a forthcoming executive order prohibiting federal contractors from discriminating in employment on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Lindsay’s action led to national controversy and a firestorm of criticism including from faculty, students and alumni. An online petition condemning the request, begun by a Gordon graduate, gathered almost 4,000 signatures in a short period of time. Other reactions included the City of Salem cancelling Gordon’s management of the city’s “Old Town Hall” and the Hamilton-Wenham School Committee vote to move the high school graduation away from the college campus.
Despite the fallout from Lindsay’s own actions, he and the college board of trustees chose to threaten Barthold in May 2015 with job termination, specifically based on her published letter to a newspaper and a few quotes in one news article. They condemned Barthold for saying she would work with others to “win back the trust” of the LGBTQ community and accused her of publicizing “internal differences” and “fostering an image of discord.”
Although the administration backed down from the threat to terminate Professor Barthold after receiving a warning letter from attorney Solomon, they subsequently imposed discipline on her - removing her from faculty leadership positions, denying her the scheduled right to apply for a promotion, and removing her from serving as director of the gender studies minor.
"The ACLU of Massachusetts cares about both religious freedom and the right to speak out against discrimination," said Sarah Wunsch, deputy legal director for ACLU of Massachusetts. "But religious freedom does not mean the freedom to do anything to others in the name of religion.” A key factor supporting Barthold’s claims is that as a liberal arts college, Gordon accepts students from a wide variety of Christian traditions and beliefs, as well as non-Christians, and hires faculty and staff of varying Christian traditions. Some non-Christian faculty have also been hired. Wunsch noted that Gordon has a tradition of promoting critical reflection on a variety of ideas and stating its support for academic freedom. In this context, she said, “the college does not have a right to punish a philosophy professor who criticized a policy of discrimination in hiring on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity."
The lawsuit, filed in Essex Superior Court, contends that Gordon officials violated various state laws protecting against retaliation for opposing discrimination, sex discrimination, and interference with freedom of expression and association.