On Monday, Louisiana College President Joe Aguillard sent out, through his secretary, this press advisory:
April 3, 2012
Granbery Conference Center
Louisiana College will hold a Press Conference where Dr. Joe Aguillard will announce that Louisiana College has won the seven year legal battle regarding our right to teach according to our religious beliefs.
Please plan to attend this historical event.
IN IMPORTANT RELIGIOUS LIBERTIES DECISION, COURT DISMISSES FORMER PROFESSERS’ LAWSUIT BASED ON PROHIBITED ENTANGLEMENT
Establishment Clause Of The First Amendment Of United States Constitution Prohibits Decision Where Court Would Have To Choose Baptist Theology
Court may not make ruling “respecting an establishment of Religion.” U.S. Const. Amend. 1.
So, here’s how naive I am: When I received this blockbuster press advisory, I looked up the decisions that had been rendered on Monday by the United States Supreme Court. And for a brief moment, I actually wondered if Aguillard was somehow latching onto the Court’s controversial decision about strip searching, since, out of the three decisions rendered on Monday, it was the only one of consequence. But, of course, that couldn’t be right. What the heck was Joe Aguillard going to announce? There was nothing from the Court of Appeals. Nothing from the Louisiana Supreme Court.
Now, we know, though, that Joe Aguillard was touting a decision rendered by Judge Doggett of the Ninth JDC. I should make this clear: I voted for Judge Doggett; I think she is fair, and I completely understand why she dismissed this case; after all, the professors in this suit were asserting claims of defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress, two of the most difficult torts to prove. But I think Judge Doggett would also acknowledge that she is an elected district court judge and that it is a little, if not completely, disingenuous for Joe Aguillard to claim that her dismissal of an employment dispute, in the context of a defamation and IIED claim, amounts to an historical decision on religious freedom.
After reading Judge Doggett’s decision, I don’t think it’s nearly as much of a victory as Joe Aguillard and company are touting it to be. In many ways, it’s a net loss for Joe Aguillard and his administration. But before I get to the reasons why, let me first say: This was an extremely well-crafted, well-written, and informative opinion. So, kudos to Judge Doggett and her team.
Amazingly, this lawsuit originated over a dispute between professors and the administration about Scott Peck’s incredible book The Road Less Traveled. Until his death in 2005, Scott Peck was one of the country’s greatest Christian scholars and most notable psychologists, but according to LC’s lawyer, he was a “Buddhist” when he wrote The Road Less Traveled, which gave them the right to ban the book from their campus. Dr. Peck wasn’t ever a real Buddhist, but he was, most definitely, a real, bonafide Christian who just happened to say things that sounded Buddhist.
This case is really not about religious freedom, per se, at least as many of think about religious freedom; it’s about the right of the LC administration to discriminate against professors who do not share their own theological perspective. Louisiana College, under Joe Aguillard’s leadership, banned the book from its curricula, presumably because they believed the book did not conform to their own opinions about Christianity, and the professors allege that they were subsequently defamed, both by the administration and by students. Apparently, a “packet of letters” was disseminated criticizing the professors’s religious beliefs.Testimony from student’s remarks about watching the PG-13 film adapting the production of Hamet was somehow important. Whatever.
This aspect of the case was probably an easy decision for Judge Doggett. The professors, who were likely subjected to all sorts of ridiculous and hyperbolic criticism, who understandably felt misrepresented, mistreated, and maligned by LC (which occurred even after LC apologized to them), and who spent years litigating this at great personal expense, were asking the court to determine something it simply cannot determine: The definition of Biblical inerrancy. Neither Judge Doggett nor any other judge in this country can rule on something like this.
And so, while it may be discouraging to some who believe Aguillard and company were responsible for maligning these professors and distorting their religious views, because the professors’s defamation claims were so intertwined with “theological nuance,” there’s no practical way for them to be proven in a courtroom, as interesting as it would be to put Joe Aguillard’s religious beliefs on trial.
This, in effect, is Joe Aguillard’s “landmark” victory: It’s a na-na-na-na-boo-boo, I-can-say-what-I-want-to about your religion argument. It may turn the stomachs of most reasonable people who believe in the free and open exchange of ideas and people like me, who believe the serious study of religion requires us to confront serious questions and who think it’s arrogant, anti-intellectual bullying to suggest that anyone who challenges you is somehow not as righteous or Godly as you profess to be. But Aguillard does have this right.
Here’s the irony, though, and I realize I’ve buried the lede here: Joe Aguillard and company may have won this case, technically, but the majority of Judge Doggett’s opinion was about rejecting the defense offerred by Louisiana College. LC would have been better off if they had just kept quiet and stuck with the facts. But instead, they offerred this full-throated defense that they were actually a church and that Joe Aguillard and company were entitled to a ministerial exception.
And because LC offered this defense, we now have a great analysis from Judge Doggett, clearly and definitively holding that LC is NOT a church and is not entitled to a ministerial exception. She may have ruled against the professors, but she also, smartly, severely undermined LC’s ability to argue, now or in the future, that it can somehow shield itself from liability under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment or that it can duck behind a ministerial exception when it violates a person’s rights in employment disputes. And I’d submit to all of you: This is a huge blow to Louisiana College’s attempt to operate according to its own rules.
It’s also worth pointing out: LC and Joe Aguillard fought this for years. At the end of the day, they may have prevailed on the defamation and IIED claims, but they lost on the real substance of their defense. And guess what? They still have to pay for every penny. Hardly a landmark victory. If anything, it’s a huge defeat couched as a minor win that acknowledges something already well-established: Joe Aguillard and his administration have always been able to argue over Baptist “theological nuance,” even when they’re being total jerks about it.
“Life is difficult,” Scott Peck began in The Road Less Traveled. “This is the great truth, one of the greatest truths,this truth, we transcend it.”