A public university in southern Ohio has agreed to pay a professor $400,000 after it disciplined him four years ago for refusing to use a transgender student’s preferred pronouns, according to Shawnee State University and a news release from the professor’s attorney.
The settlement means the philosophy professor, Nicholas Meriwether, will not be required to use certain pronouns regardless of a student’s request, his attorney’s release states.
The ruling comes as schools across the nation grapple with balancing the inclusivity of transgender students and the religious beliefs of some teachers.
Meriwether sued in 2018 after he was disciplined, and a federal district court dismissed the suit for lack of standing. Then, last year a three-judge appellate panel revived the lawsuit and sent it back to the lower court, where Meriwether could have argued his First Amendment rights of free speech and religion and his 14th Amendment right to due process were violated.
“As part of the settlement, the university has agreed that Meriwether has the right to choose when to use, or avoid using, titles or pronouns when referring to or addressing students,” the release from Meriwether’s attorneys read. “Significantly, the university agreed Meriwether will never be mandated to use pronouns, including if a student requests pronouns that conflict with his or her biological sex.”
Shawnee University called it an “economic decision.”
“Though we have decided to settle, we adamantly deny that anyone at Shawnee State deprived Dr. Meriwether of his free speech rights or his rights to freely exercise his religion,” the school’s statement read.
“In this case, Shawnee State followed its policy and federal law that protects students or any individual from bigotry and discrimination. 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.”
Shawnee State, in Portsmouth, serves more than 3,600 students.
Shawnee State introduced a policy in 2016 requiring the use of a student’s pronouns to match their gender identity, according to Meriwether’s complaint. The professor pushed back, claiming this went against his beliefs as a Christian.
A series of compromises then was discussed over months, including Meriwether offering to “use any name the student requested instead of titles and pronouns,” the release from Meriwether’s attorneys said.
The school opened a Title IX investigation against the professor, ultimately concluding Meriwether’s treatment of the student created a “hostile environment,” and the dean of the university’s College of Arts and Sciences recommended putting a formal warning in his file. Had the behaviors continued, Meriwether was on the hook for suspension without pay or even termination, his complaint read.
Since the lawsuit was filed, the school said, “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,” its statement read.