By Jonathan Stempel
(Reuters) - A federal appeals court on Friday revived a philosophy professor's lawsuit against a public university in southern Ohio that reprimanded him for refusing to address a transgender student by her preferred pronouns.
The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Nicholas Meriwether can try to prove Shawnee State University violated his First Amendment free speech and religious rights by mandating pronouns that he said did not reflect "biological reality" and contradicted his devout Christian beliefs.
Shawnee State had given Meriwether, who had taught there since 1996, a written warning about his conduct, and said he could be suspended without pay or fired for violating its nondiscrimination policy.
Writing for a three-judge panel, Circuit Judge Amul Thapar said Meriwether was simply communicating on a "hotly contested" matter of public concern, whether one's sex can be changed.
He also said Portsmouth-based Shawnee State offered no proof Meriwether's decision not to use feminine pronouns affected his job, hampered school operations or denied educational benefits to the student, known as Jane Doe, who received a high grade.
"If professors lacked free-speech protections when teaching, a university would wield alarming power to compel ideological conformity," wrote Thapar, an appointee of former President Donald Trump.
"A university president could require a pacifist to declare that war is just, a civil rights icon to condemn the Freedom Riders, a believer to deny the existence of God, or a Soviet émigré to address his students as 'comrades,'" he added. "That cannot be."
The appeals court returned the lawsuit to a Cincinnati judge who dismissed it in February 2020. Several interest groups submitted briefs supporting both sides.
Shawnee State and its lawyer did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
John Bursch, a lawyer at the conservative nonprofit Alliance Defending Freedom who represented Meriwether, praised the decision. "Nobody should be forced to contradict their core beliefs just to keep their job," he said.
The case is Meriwether v Hartop et al, 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 20-3289.
(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Bill Berkrot)