Judge allows suit against seminary to continue

(Updated Sept. 19)

FORT WORTH  The judge in a federal employment lawsuit against Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and its president has ruled the case may proceed with an amended complaint against the school.

Also, in court documents filed Sept. 14 in U.S. District Court in Fort Worth, Judge John McBryde noted that due to the additional complaint, the Texas seminary’s request for dismissal of the case is moot — a move that drew a different interpretation from each camp.

The plaintiff, former Southwestern theology professor Sheri L. Klouda, claims she was wrongly denied tenure because she is a woman after being hired for a tenure-track position in 2002. The seminary, which has changed leadership since Klouda’s hiring, said her tenure denial is consistent with a policy enacted after her hiring that, for doctrinal reasons, the teaching of men in theology classes should be done by men.

Both sides in the case expressed optimism at the judge’s ruling Sept. 14.

Gary Richardson, a Tulsa, Okla., attorney representing Klouda, told the Southern Baptist TEXAN: “I think [Southwestern] very much thought [the motion to dismiss] would be the end of the case and, of course, we very much believe that we have a legal basis to keep the case alive and keep it moving.”

Richardson said he is “cautiously optimistic.”

But Shelby Sharpe, representing seminary President Paige Patterson in the case, said the decision to go forward under a new pleading has nothing to do with the merits of the suit.

“Judge McBryde, in granting the motion for Dr. Klouda to amend her complaint, made a very pragmatic decision that eliminated the second suit in the most efficient way and placed all of her claims in one suit for final disposition,” Sharpe said.

Sharpe added: “The motions to dismiss were directed at a complaint no longer before the court after the granting of permission to file the new complaint that made those motions moot, which is not a ruling on the merits raised by those motions.”

Furthermore, Sharpe said, the judge’s separate order for a status report is “standard for all litigation in Judge McBryde’s court and is also no indication that the issues raised by the motions to dismiss are not meritorious. The defense still strongly believes these issues raised by the motions to dismiss will ultimately lead to a summary disposition of this suit when they come before him in due season.”

Klouda was hired for a tenure-track position in 2002 when Kenneth Hemphill was Southwestern’s president but later was notified that she would not be tenured, her lawsuit states.

The seminary argued in April that their action was “an ecclesiastical decision, which this Court is bound to accept out of deference for the free exercise of religion, protected by the First Amendment.”

Klouda’s lawsuit, as originally constituted, charged Southwestern and Patterson with breach of contract, fraud and defamation and sought unspecified damages.

Klouda earned a Ph.D. at Southwestern in 2002 and was elected unanimously 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. She is the primary provider for her family, the lawsuit stated, and has “relocated her family out of financial necessity, incurring costs and financial hardship.”

Patterson has stated that the seminary’s policy prohibiting women from teaching theology to men springs 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, states 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 last Jan. 19 appeared in the Dallas Morning News after her denial of tenure. The story stemmed from comments on the Internet blog of Enid, Okla., pastor Wade Burleson decrying Klouda’s tenure denial.

Nearly two months later, Klouda hired Richardson, the Oklahoma attorney, and filed suit against the seminary.

Prior to her lawsuit, Klouda told the Dallas Morning News: “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.

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

Online Editor
Aaron Earls
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