The Volokh Conspiracy

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Free Speech

Court Allows Religious Discrimination Claim to Go Forward in Ex-Hamline Prof's Mohammed Images / Islamic Art Controversy


As readers of the blog may know, Hamline University declined to renew Erica López Prater's instructor contract because she displayed Islamic Art containing images of Mohammed in her World Art class, and some students objected. López Prater sued, and on Friday Judge Katherine M. Menendez (D. Minn.) allowed her religious discrimination claim to go forward (López Prater v. Trustees of the Hamline Univ. of Minn.):

Ms. López Prater alleges two theories of religious discrimination: 1) discrimination because she is not Muslim, and 2) discrimination because she failed to conform to certain religious beliefs of others (i.e., that it is improper to view images of the Prophet Muhammad)…. Although the Court appreciates that Ms. López Prater alleges unusual and somewhat indirect theories for religious discrimination, it does not believe that novelty in this context equates to failure to state a claim. Given the lens applicable at this stage, where a plaintiffs' allegations are taken as true, dismissal is not appropriate.

Ms. López Prater may have difficulty proving her case at later stages, especially because demonstrating that Hamline would have treated her differently if she was Muslim seems very hard to establish. But the sole question before the Court at this stage is whether her allegations plausibly state a claim for relief, and Hamline bears the burden of dismissal….

Ms. López Prater maintains that Hamline would not have labeled the act of showing the images "Islamophobic" if she were Muslim. She also points to the temporal proximity between the uproar over her showing the images and Hamline's decision not to renew her contract as suggesting a discriminatory motive. Exactly two weeks after Ms. López Prater met with Dean Kostihova and was told that there was a large outcry within the Muslim Student Association and Muslim staff were threatening to resign, she was notified by the department head that the spring semester class she had been scheduled to teach was being cancelled and that her contract would not be renewed. Ms. López Prater responded to that email, suggesting that the change must be related to her showing images of the Prophet Muhammad in class. The department head did not deny this suggestion. The continued description of her conduct as "Islamophobic" by members of Hamline's administration suggests that it was a problem that Ms. López Prater did not conform to the belief that one should not view images of the Prophet Muhammad for any reason.

The information in Ms. López Prater's complaint is sufficient to plausibly allege that Hamline took the adverse actions because she was not Muslim or did not conform to the religious beliefs held by some that viewing images of the Prophet Muhammad is forbidden. And while Hamline contends that Ms. López Prater's non-conformance theory must fail—because she did not allege that Hamline itself held those beliefs—caselaw recognizes that an employer can discriminate against an employee if it acts on the preference of third parties such as customers or clients. Therefore, Ms. López Prater alleging that Hamline discriminated against her by acting on the preferences of certain Muslim students and staff members is sufficient at this stage….

Note that simply requiring that an employee conform to secularly defined rules is generally not treated as religious discrimination, even if the rules are motivated by the employer's (or its customers') religious beliefs. For instance, say an employer has a policy of firing all employees, male or female, who commit adultery. That wouldn't be religious discrimination, even if the employer's rationale is religious opposition to adultery: Religious employers are just as entitled to have religiously motivated no-adultery rules as secular employers are entitled to have no-adultery rules motivated by their secular moral values. Likewise for an employer (religious or secular) who forbids all employees, of any religion, from eating meat in the employee lunchroom.

On the other hand, requiring that an employee engage in specifically religious practices (e.g., attend religious services) is indeed generally treated as religious discrimination. I take it that López Prater's "non-conformance" argument (as opposed to her "Hamline would not have labeled the act of showing the images 'Islamophobic' if she were Muslim" argument) is that requiring that an employee avoid what some religious people see as blasphemy should be treated similarly to a requirement that an employee affirmatively engage in religious worship or similar behavior. The court didn't specifically deal with this question, and I take it that it remains open, perhaps on a motion for summary judgment or on an eventual appeal.

The court rejected López Prater's other claims, though, including her claims of retaliation based on her having objected to the university's allegedly discriminatory actions, and claims related to allegedly defamatory statements by University officials. Here's an excerpt of the defamation discussion, which seems quite consistent with the precedents on the subject:

Ms. López Prater alleges that statements from three individuals were defamatory. The first statement is from Dr. Everett's November 7, 2022, email in which he said that Ms. López Prater engaged in conduct that was inconsiderate, disrespectful, and Islamophobic. The second is the statement from the Dean of Students published in the student newspaper that Ms. López Prater's conduct was "an act of intolerance." Third, she relies upon the statements Mr. Hussein made at the "Community Conversation" that Ms. López Prater showed the images of the Prophet Muhammad for no other reason than to provoke, offend, and hurt Muslim students; that her conduct was "Islamophobic;" and that she showed the paintings because she does not value Muslims the same as other minorities. She attributes these statements to Hamline because Dr. Everett forwarded a video from the "Community Conversation" event with his email to staff. Although the Court sympathizes with how difficult it has been for Ms. López Prater to have been the subject of these statements, that does not make them redressable as defamatory.

Generally, courts have found terms like "Islamophobic" and "racist," without more, to be nonactionable expressions of opinion or rhetorical hyperbole…. Terms like "disrespectful" and "inappropriate" have similarly been found to be nonactionable expressions of opinion…. Indeed, the fact that people (including Muslims) hold different views about whether or not Ms. López Prater's conduct was Islamophobic or inappropriate further demonstrates the idea that the statements at issue are opinions that cannot be characterized, let alone proven, as true or false….