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A professor was reprimanded for refusing to use a transgender student’s pronouns. A court says he can sue.

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It was the first day of the spring semester at Shawnee State University, and a student in Nicholas Meriwether’s political philosophy class hung back to have a word with the professor.

During the lecture, Meriwether had called the student “sir” when she raised her hand. That was incorrect, she told him. She identified as a woman, she said, and asked him to address her accordingly.

Meriwether hadn’t previously met the student — identified in court documents as Jane Doe — or received any information about her sex or gender identity, according to court documents. But he refused her request, saying his Christian faith prevented him from talking about gender in a way he believed to be false. He instead proposed calling her only by her last name.

The 2018 incident at the small public university in Ohio set off a months-long investigation by school officials, who concluded that Meriwether had created a “hostile environment” and issued a written warning saying he could be fired or suspended without pay for violating campus nondiscrimination policy.

On Friday, a federal appeals court ruled that the professor could sue the university over the reprimand for alleged violations of his constitutional rights.

In a 32-page opinion, a three-judge panel on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit said that the university had “punished a professor for his speech on a hotly contested issue.”

“By forbidding Meriwether from describing his views on gender identity even in his syllabus, Shawnee State silenced a viewpoint that could have catalyzed a robust and insightful in-class discussion,” wrote Judge Amul Thapar, an appointee of President Donald Trump.

“Since Meriwether has plausibly alleged that Shawnee State violated his First Amendment rights by compelling his speech or silence and casting a pall of orthodoxy over the classroom,” the opinion read, “his free-speech claim may proceed.”

The decision revives a lawsuit by Meriwether accusing the university and sends it back to a lower court. Depending on how the case proceeds, the university could ultimately appeal to the Supreme Court.

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Legal disputes involving the rights of transgender people, discrimination law and the scope of religious-exemption policies have become a cultural and political flash point in recent years, with a spate of high-profile cases rising through the federal court system. A lawsuit similar to Meriwether’s is underway in Virginia, where a high school French teacher sued school district officials after they fired him for refusing to address a transgender student with masculine pronouns.

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The conservative legal advocacy group Alliance for Defending Freedom, which represents Meriwether, called Friday’s ruling a victory for freedom of speech and religious liberty.

“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,” ADF senior counsel John Bursch said in a statement. “We are very pleased that the 6th Circuit affirmed the constitutional right of public university professors to speak and lead discussions, even on hotly contested issues.”

But Andrew Koppelman, a constitutional law expert at Northwestern University who has followed the litigation, said the court’s reasoning opened the door for discrimination.

“As a hypothetical, let’s suppose that a professor thinks that the honorific ‘Mr.’ is okay, but not for African Americans because it gives African Americans a respect he doesn’t believe they deserve,” Koppelman said in an interview. “I think a court would say that that alone would create a hostile environment. I don’t understand why applying the wrong honorific only to transgender students doesn’t create a hostile environment also.”

A representative from the university didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment Saturday.

Meriwether, who has taught at the university for 25 years, says he is the victim of a culture of political correctness at universities that suppresses the First Amendment rights of conservatives and religious people. He repeatedly misgendered the student in an op-ed last year in the Hill newspaper, referring to her by male pronouns, and saying he was being forced to “bow to the new orthodoxy.”

After being confronted by the student after class in January 2018, Meriwether reported the dispute up the university’s chain of command, according to the 6th Circuit’s opinion.

When the matter reached the office of the acting dean, Roberta Milliken, Meriwether proposed a compromise: He would refer to the student only by her last name.

The student complained again, saying she’d hire a lawyer if the university didn’t take action. This time, the dean told Merriweather that he had to address the student as a woman. He still refused, calling the student by her last name for the rest of the semester, the 6th Circuit said.

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As school officials investigated the matter, the dean went back to Meriwether and offered him two options, according to the opinion: Either address the student by her preferred pronouns or stop using all gender-based pronouns altogether in reference to students.

Eventually, Shawnee State’s Title IX concluded that “Meriwether’s disparate treatment [of Doe] ha[d] created a hostile environment” in violation of the university’s nondiscrimination policies, according to the opinion.

The university placed a written warning in Meriwether’s file ordering him to change the way he addressed transgender students. He could face suspension without pay and termination if he didn’t, the warning said.

Meriwether’s lawsuit alleged that the university violated his First and 14th Amendment rights, the Ohio Constitution, and his contract with the university.

A federal judge ruled in the university’s favor in February 2020 and dismissed the lawsuit. Meriwether appealed, and the appeals court heard arguments in the case in November.

At the time, Shawnee State defended the way it handled the matter, saying in a statement: “We have maintained throughout this case that the facts show that every effort was made by Shawnee State to respect the rights of free speech and protect all individuals from discrimination, inside and outside of the classroom.”

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