Judge dismisses suit against Southwestern

FORT WORTH, Texas–A federal judge has ruled in favor of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and its president, Paige Patterson, in a lawsuit by a former theology professor who claimed she was wrongly dismissed from a tenure-track position because she is a woman.

Sheri L. Klouda filed the federal employment lawsuit alleging breach of contract, fraud and related claims on March 8, 2007, and had sought unspecified damages and a jury trial.

Instead, in a ruling filed March 20 in U.S. District Court in Fort Worth, Texas, Judge John McBryde signed a judgment granting “summary judgment” dismissing “all of her alleged actions against defendants” and ordering Klouda to cover the plaintiffs’ court costs.

Patterson, in a statement following the judge’s decision, said: “My response is simply one of gratitude to God and to a host of people. The decision of the court has implications for all of our institutions and churches. Americans everywhere may still rejoice in freedom of faith and the ordering of their churches and institutions accordingly. I am thankful to God for his every kindness. I am thankful to the thousands who prayed for us. I am thankful to the trustees who faithfully stood with the institution, and I am thankful for our superb attorneys. Gratitude is all that I feel in my heart this day.”

Patterson attorney J. Shelby Sharpe of Fort Worth added, “Judge McBryde followed well-established court opinions going back over 130 years. The opinion he issued is soundly reasoned and the law properly applied to the record before him.”

Meanwhile, Klouda’s attorney, Gary Richardson of Tulsa, Okla., said, “No one questions the fact that it’s a tough call. History is, of course, against us. We knew that and we believe this case has merit. And most likely we will make the decision to appeal it. We haven’t made that decision, but most likely that is what we’ll do.”

Richardson said he believes new laws are needed if “an entity can violate someone’s civil rights and constitutional rights and not be held responsible … and then hide behind doctrinal positions to justify it.”

The defendants’ attorneys had argued that the court had no jurisdiction because Klouda’s tenure denial was on constitutionally protected religious grounds.

The judge agreed, writing in his ruling that seminary faculty are “hired, assigned, advanced, tenured, evaluated, and terminated on predominantly religious criteria” and that Klouda’s classes “had sectarian goals.”

Klouda earned a Ph.D. at Southwestern in 2002 and was elected by the trustees to her tenure-track position teaching Hebrew. A Criswell College graduate, Klouda left the seminary in 2006 and now teaches at Taylor University in Upland, Ind.

In the lawsuit, Klouda charged that Patterson assured her “personally and specifically” that her position was secure.

Patterson has stated that the seminary’s policy prohibiting women from teaching theology to men is drawn from its desire to “model the local church.” The Baptist Faith and Message 2000, adopted by a majority of messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention that year, states that the role of senior pastor in local churches is limited to men. Patterson, according to the suit, believes the same standard applies to the seminary.

Klouda’s case became widely known after a news story on Jan. 19, 2007, appeared in the Dallas Morning News following her denial of tenure. The story stemmed from comments of Baptist bloggers decrying Klouda’s tenure denial in 2006.

Nearly two months later, Klouda hired Richardson and filed suit against the seminary. Richardson is a former U.S. attorney with a long history of winning large declaratory judgments.

Prior to her lawsuit, Klouda told the newspaper: “I don’t think it was right to hire me to do this job, put me in the position where I, in good faith, assumed that I was working toward tenure, and then suddenly remove me without any cause other than gender.”

Southwestern trustee chairman Van McClain countered that the school “allowed her to teach a full two years after she was told she would not have tenure” and that “I do not know of any women teaching in any of the SBC seminaries presently in the area of theology or biblical languages.”

Dorothy Patterson, wife of the Southwestern president, teaches theology at the school, but only before female students, the seminary said.

The seminary also offered Klouda financial support after her teaching responsibilities were over, McClain noted, adding: “The seminary went far beyond anything that could be expressed as its duty or responsibility.” According to court documents, Southwestern offered Klouda a position as associate director of the writing center on campus, with no reduction in pay or benefits, before she accepted her current position at Taylor University.

Also, according to the court papers, Klouda’s assertion in some published reports that Patterson had told her she was “a mistake the trustees needed to fix” came not from Patterson but from B. Paul Wolfe, assistant dean of biblical studies. And, “so far as she knows, she is the one who published the comment to the media,” a footnote in the ruling states.

On Jan. 23, attorneys for the seminary, Roland K. Johnson and Shannan E. Goss, filed a motion for a summary judgment, and a brief in support of that motion. A summary judgment contends that all necessary factual issues are settled or so one-sided they need not be tried.

Furthermore, a motion to dismiss by Patterson attorney Sharpe countered the suit, essentially saying that the court had no jurisdiction in such an ecclesiastical “realm where the Constitution forbids the federal judiciary to ‘tread.'” On Jan. 24, McBryde ordered Sharpe to refile the motion as a request for summary judgment.

Last September, attorneys for the seminary and Patterson argued unsuccessfully for the case to be dismissed after the plaintiff’s attorneys amended their complaint against the defendants — a move both camps interpreted as positive for their clients.

Plano, Texas, attorney Kelly Shackelford, who has argued many religious liberty cases in the federal courts, told the Southern Baptist TEXAN last fall that issues which “touch in any way on the seminary’s right to follow doctrine in hiring its religious instructors” are constitutionally protected.

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