Former Houghton University employee claims he was fired for using pronouns in email signature

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(NEW YORK) — As debate grows over how gender identity is handled in schools, many employees at educational institutions have said that they feel caught in the middle, and some also say that they’ve been disciplined because of it.

That includes Shua Wilmot, a former residence hall director, who says his former employer, Houghton University, fired him and another residence hall director after they added their gender pronouns to their work email signatures. Houghton University is a private Christian college in upstate New York that is affiliated with the Wesleyan Church, a Methodist denomination.

“While the details of individual personnel matters are confidential, Houghton University has never terminated an employment relationship based solely on the use of pronouns in staff email signatures,” a university spokesperson said in a statement to ABC News. “Over the past years, we’ve required anything extraneous be removed from email signatures, including Scripture quotes. Houghton remains steadfastly committed to offering the Christian education that our students are promised.”

ABC News’ Linsey Davis spoke to Wilmot about what he says led up to his termination. Wilmot shared details about a letter he says he previously sent to the board of Wesleyan Church suggesting changes to their written statement on gender identity and expression.

LINSEY DAVIS: So you say that you were fired from the church, at least, in part, because you put your preferred pronoun in your email signature. Did the school tell you that that was their rationale for ending your career there?

SHUA WILMOT: Yeah. So, actually I was fired from the university, not from the church, but the university is an institution of the Wesleyan Church, and that’s correct. They cited that as one of the two main reasons that I was fired.

DAVIS: A university spokesperson released a statement saying that personnel matters are confidential, but that Houghton has never terminated employment based on use of pronouns and signatures and over the years have required anything additional in signatures, including scriptures, removed. Were you aware of any such policies about signatures?

WILMOT: Yeah, that’s a new policy, though. I mean, the phrase “over the years” kind of surprises me, because that policy was announced in September and sort of passed in October. This is after I had signed my contract for the year, and it was also never added to the employee handbook up until, you know, maybe to this day, but at least until the time that I was told my contract wouldn’t be renewed. It was still not in the employee handbook, but it was communicated as a policy, this academic year, yeah.

DAVIS: I’m curious, did they give you a chance to get rid of that in your signature line – the pronouns in your signature line – before terminating you, or how did that process play out?

WILMOT: Yes. So my supervisor was asked to address it with me and with Reagan [Zelaya]. And so we were asked to comply with this policy, and we declined. And then I personally had to meet with the dean of my department to have a similar conversation. Reagan was never asked to have a conversation like that, because she had already resigned, effective at the end of the academic year.

But I had intended to continue working at Houghton, and so I had this conversation with the dean, and the long and short of it is, eventually I said, “I don’t want to resign, and I don’t want to comply with this policy.” I gave him my reasons why, and he said, “I will take this news to the president and HR.” And then after that, next thing I know, I’m told that my contract won’t be renewed. It was never explicitly said to me that that could be an end result, until it was.

DAVIS: If you knew that you could just remove the pronoun from your signature line and could keep your job, would you have done that?

WILMOT: I think probably not. After a hard conversation with my dean, there were a few days that I did take my pronouns out of my email signature, thinking, “OK, maybe I can concede this one small thing.” But I just didn’t have peace with it throughout that weekend that I had my pronouns removed. I didn’t have peace with it, because I don’t want to actively play a role in making the community any less inclusive.

DAVIS: You’ve said that you believe that another reason for your firing includes a letter that you wrote to church officials about problems that you had with Wesleyan Church’s views on gender identity and expression. You say the entire viewpoint makes unsupported claims to justify trans exclusion. What points do you take exception to?

WILMOT: Yeah, sure. Well, I would say most of my letter to the board of the Wesleyan Church was really making helpful suggestions to improve their view of gender and identity, to improve their statement on the Wesleyan view of gender expression and identity. And some of those suggestions include that — the Wesleyan view claims that transgender and transsexual are synonyms, which they’re not and they long have not been. They also use the phrase “birth designated gender,” which I recommend that they change to “sex assigned at birth,” because doctors assign sex, which is anatomical, physiological, genetic and physical attributes. Doctors don’t assign gender. But there are other things to it as well. I think that their theology on it should be reexamined, but I explicitly state in the letter that I am not asking them to change their convictions. I just want them to have accurate information and to consider making improvements to the statement.

DAVIS: Do you believe that your termination infringes on your First Amendment rights?

WILMOT: Yeah, I would say in a way it does, but Houghton University is a private institution, so free speech is not protected in the same ways that it is at public institutions. I know this, because I studied higher ed law in 2017. So yeah, I mean, that’s not my complaint here.

DAVIS: I just want to follow up on that, because other faith-based organizations have argued for their own First Amendment rights, saying religious freedom protections allow them to create policies to treat LGBTQ and transgender people differently. What’s your response to that argument?

WILMOT: Yeah, I think that they have that right. I don’t think that it’s a good practice. I think that there are plenty of ways in which Christian institutions will and do marginalize people in ways that are antithetical to the way that Jesus would have wanted them to be treated and still wants them to be treated. And that’s a shame, but I think that they should have that right to make different sorts of policies.

DAVIS: Shua Wilmot, we thank you so much for talking with us tonight. Thank you.

WILMOT: Yeah, my pleasure.

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