Lawsuit: St. Bonaventure discriminated against long-time dean for Wiccan beliefs

June 6, 2019

A faculty member and former dean of the communications program at St. Bonaventure University in southwestern New York has filed a lawsuit against the school, alleging she was pressured to resign from her deanship, denied a provost position, and continues to face calls to resign from the faculty — all because she’s Wiccan. Pauline Hoffmann says she was also required to sign a statement pledging to uphold Catholic beliefs — a mandate not required of other, non-Catholic SBU faculty.

According to the complaint, filed with the United States District Court for the Western District of New York late last month, the discriminatory behavior began after Hoffmann referred to herself as a Wiccan in an email to SBU’s vice president of communications in the fall of 2011. A few months later, in the spring of 2012, SBU’s then-provost Michael Fisher required Hoffmann to sign the statement, which Hoffmann questioned.

“[I]f I were Jewish would I have to sign this?” Hoffmann allegedly asked Fisher.

“If you were Jewish,” Fisher allegedly replied, “then I guess not.”

Other notable allegations from the complaint:

  • Provost Fisher stated, “You might not want to be so overt about being a witch if you want to move up,” and “Sister Margaret really has it in for you.”
  • Sister Margaret told professor Hoffmann, “I took a big chance hiring you as a Wiccan.”
  • Joseph Zimmer, the current provost who replaced Fisher in 2015, was told to “solve the Pauline problem.”

While SBU is a private, Catholic university, it makes strong promises of academic freedom, freedom of expression, and freedom of religion.

SBU’s mission statement promises students and faculty “an inclusive community that values diversity as a strength.” SBU’s Equal Employment and Educational Opportunity Policy also promises “equal opportunity in … admissions, employment, and all educational programs and activities without regard to race, color, national or ethnic origin, gender, marital status, sexual orientation, religion, age, disability, veteran status or any other legally protected category.” Lastly, SBU’s faculty handbook Academic Freedom Policy “is intended to assure the protection of freedom of inquiry, thought [and] expression.” The same policy says the following about faculty members: “[w]hen they speak or write outside the classroom or other venues of teaching, they are entitled to full freedom from institutional censorship or discipline.”

Hoffmann’s filing alleges discrimination on the basis of religion and gender under both Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 and a nearly identical state law, the New York State Human Rights Law. The complaint also alleges retaliation under both laws.

While private institutions are not required to uphold the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause or free expression mandate, they are morally (and perhaps legally) obligated to keep the promises they voluntarily make.

FIRE will continue to watch this case as it progresses.