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Seminary responds to former prof’s lawsuit

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary has filed a motion to dismiss a lawsuit by a professor who has alleged that her dismissal from a tenure-track position last year was because she is a woman.

The seminary argued that the dismissal of Sheri L. Klouda is protected by the same religious freedom accorded to churches under the First Amendment, according to an April 9 filing with the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas.

As stated by the seminary: “The Seminary’s relationship with its professors has been held by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals to be the same relationship as a church has with its ministers. Any decision the Seminary may make regarding the employment of one of its professors is an ecclesiastical decision, which this Court is bound to accept out of deference for the free exercise of religion, protected by the First Amendment.”

The seminary filing also disputed various claims in Klouda’s suit, filed March 8 in the federal court, which is located in Fort Worth, as is the seminary.

Klouda, in the suit, accused the seminary and its president, Paige Patterson, of breach of contract, fraud and defamation.

The seminary argued that Klouda’s claim of an oral contract with Patterson after his election as president in 2003 “lacks sufficient definition” under Texas law. Klouda, in her suit, alleged that Patterson had assured her “personally and specifically” that her position as a Hebrew professor was secure.

Regarding alleged fraud, the seminary’s arguments challenged Klouda’s lawsuit for failing to set forth “sufficient certainty as to be capable of giving rise to fraud.”

Regarding alleged defamation, the seminary responded: “Plaintiff claims that Dr. Patterson defamed her by labeling her a ‘mistake,’ and Plaintiff alleges that the Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Seminary defamed her by stating that the hiring of a woman to teach men was a ‘momentary lax of the parameters.’ Neither of these statements, when construed in the context of Plaintiff’s claim, are capable of being proved true or false. A claim of defamation does not exist in the absence of a false statement.”

Klouda is seeking unspecified damages and has requested a trial by jury. The seminary’s motion to dismiss the suit, meanwhile, “requests such other and further relief, at law or in equity, to which it may be justly entitled,” but set forth no specifics.

Klouda, who now is a professor at Taylor University in Upland, Ind., received her Ph.D. at Southwestern in 2002 and was unanimously elected by trustees to a tenure-track assistant professor position to teach Hebrew in the seminary’s school of theology. She also is a graduate of Criswell College in Dallas.

Klouda taught both men and women in her classes at the seminary. According to the lawsuit, “she is an accomplished theologian, who served as professor at Southwestern for almost four years, impressing students and faculty alike, until she was forced out in the spring of 2006 because of her gender.”

She is the primary provider for her family, according to the lawsuit, and has “relocated her family out of financial necessity, incurring costs and financial hardship.”

Southwestern Seminary’s motion to dismiss Klouda’s lawsuit was filed by Roland K. Johnson and Shannan E. Goss with Harris, Finley & Bogle, P.C., in Fort Worth. Klouda is being represented by Gary Richardson of Tulsa, Okla., a former U.S. Attorney, and Cindy Olson Bourland of Austin.

Van McClain, chairman of Southwestern’s board of trustees, was quoted in a Jan. 19 Dallas Morning News article that the seminary has returned to its “traditional, confessional and biblical position” that a woman should not instruct men in theology courses or in biblical languages.

McClain, of New York, said the seminary was gracious to Klouda as she looked for a teaching position at another school. “The administration … allowed her to teach a full two years after she was told that she would not have tenure,” McClain told the newspaper, “… and the seminary even agreed to continue her support after her teaching responsibilities were over, so her family would have financial support. The seminary went far beyond anything that could be expressed as its duty or responsibility.”

McClain also told the newspaper, “I do not know of any women teaching in any of the SBC seminaries presently in the area of theology or biblical languages. In my estimation all of the seminaries have sought to be more consistent with most Southern Baptists’ understanding of Scripture on the matter.”

Klouda, contacted by the newspaper for the Jan. 19 article, said, “I don’t think it was right to hire me to do this job, to 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.”

When Klouda was hired for the tenure-track position in 2002, Ken Hemphill was the seminary’s president. At that time, “There was not a policy where [women] would not be able to teach church history or the [biblical] languages,” Hemphill told the newspaper. Hemphill resigned as Southwestern’s president in 2003 and Patterson was selected by the trustees as his successor.

The newspaper noted that Patterson’s wife Dorothy continues to teach in Southwestern’s school of theology, with McClain explaining that she teaches courses in women’s studies that are attended only by women.