Disability, the ‘good family’ and discrimination in the dismissal of a Presbyterian seminary professor


  • Valerie Hobbs University of Sheffield




first amendment, disability, employment termination, religious institutions, the ‘good family’, discriminatory language


Religious institutions in the USA, under the First Amendment, exhibit great strength in employment termination, given freedom by the Supreme Court to conduct their labour and employment practices with limited scrutiny. This article examines ways in which a Presbyterian seminary board report, justifying its decision not to renew a professor's contract, demonstrates discrimination in its use of the 'good family' ideal prominent within conservative Christianity. Focusing on intertextuality and representation of the professor's wife, a disabled woman, analysis presents evidence of an overall strategy of exclusion. The report consistently demonstrates support for negative witness statements about the professor and his wife while undermining the professor's accounts. The report's characterization of the professor's wife subsumes her identity under her husband's and assumes moral reasons for her disability and chronic illness, consistent with a nouthetic counselling ethos. Findings support the discriminatory potential of the 'good family' ideal, underscoring employees' unique vulnerability within religious higher education institutions. 

Author Biography

Valerie Hobbs, University of Sheffield

Valerie Hobbs is Senior Lecturer in Applied Linguistics at the University of Sheffield. Her research focuses on religious language, and she is currently writing a monograph on religious language in contemporary contexts for Bloomsbury.


Anthonissen, C. (2006) Critical discourse analysis as an analytic tool in considering selected, prominent features of TRC testimonies. Journal of Language and Politics 5(1): 71–96. https://doi.org/10.1075/jlp.5.1.05ant

Bourdieu, P. (1996) The Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Brooks, C. (2002) Religious influence and the politics of family decline concern: trends, sources, and U.S. political behavior. American Sociological Review 67(2): 191. https://doi.org/10.2307/3088892

Caldas-Coulthard, C. R. and Coulthard, M. (1996) Texts and Practices: Readings in Critical Discourse Analysis. London, UK: Routledge.

Callaghan, T. (2012) Holy Homophobia: Doctrinal Disciplining of Non-Heterosexuals in Canadian Catholic Schools. University of Toronto.

Chilton, P. and Schäffner, C. (2002) Politics as Text and Talk: Analytic Approaches to Political Discourse. Philadelphia, PA: John Benjamins. https://doi.org/10.1075/dapsac.4

Coon, L. L. (2001) Religious discrimination by religious institutions: limiting the sanctuary of the constitutional ministerial exception to religion-based employment decisions. Vanderbilt Law Review 54(1): 481–546.

Deetz, S. and Mumby, D. K. (1990) Power, discourse, and the workplace: reclaiming the critical tradition. Annals of the International Communication 13(1): 18–47. https://doi.org/10.1080/23808985.1990.11678743

Edgell, P. (2003) In rhetoric and practice: defining the ‘good family’ in local congregations. In M. Dillon (ed.) Handbook of the Sociology of Religion 164–78. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511807961.013

Fairclough, N. (1992) Discourse and Social Change. Cambridge, UK: Polity.

Ferfolja, T. (2005) Institutional silence: experiences of Australian lesbian teachers working in Catholic high schools. Journal of Gay and Lesbian Issues in Education 2(3): 51–66. https://doi.org/10.1300/J367v02n03_05

Fiedler, K., Bluemke, M., Friese, M. and Hofmann, W. (2003) On the different uses of linguistic abstractness: from LIB to LEB and beyond. European Journal of Social Psychology 33(4): 441–53. https://doi.org/10.1002/ejsp.158

Fowler, R. (1991) Language in the News: Discourse and Ideology in the Press. New York, NY: Routledge.

Ganske, S. (2015) Burwell v. Hobby Lobby stores, Inc.: the U.S. Supreme Court holds that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act trumps the Affordable Care Act. Journal of Contemporary Health Law and Policy 31(1): 1–34.

Gillibrand, J. (2009) Disabled Church – Disabled Society: The Implications of Autism for Philosophy, Theology and Politics. London, UK: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

GPTS (2000) Partners in Training: Field Education Handbook. Taylors, SC: GPTS. https://doi.org/10.1080/02615470601036492

GPTS (2010) Introduction to Academics. Retrieved on 16 January 2017 from http://katekomen.gpts.edu/2010/01/we-remain-committed-to.html.

GPTS (2012) Faculty and Staff Handbook. Taylors, SC: GPTS.

GPTS (2013) Summary of the Proceedings of the Board of Trustees of Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Not Renewing the Contract of Dr [Smith]. Taylors, SC: GPTS.

GPTS (2015) News and Updates. Retrieved on 16 January 2017 from http://gptsnews.gpts.edu/2014/11/morales-and-mcgraw-to-join-gpts-faculty.html.

GPTS (2016) Catalog 2016–2019. Retrieved on 24 December 2017 from https://gpts.edu/assets/gpts-2016-2019-academic-catalog.pdf.

Gregory, D. L. and Russo, C. J. (2015) The first amendment and the labor relations of religiously-affiliated employers. Journal of Collective Bargaining in the Academy 0(67): 449–68.

Gunn, A. M. (2011) Discourses that silence and deflect attention away from the interests of low-wage workers experiencing job loss. Critical Discourse Studies 8(1): 31–44. https://doi.org/10.1080/17405904.2011.533569

Halliday, M. A. and Matthiessen, C. M. (2014) An Introduction to Functional Grammar. London, UK: Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203783771

Haworth, K. (2006) The dynamics of power and resistance in police interview discourse. Discourse and Society 17(6): 739–59. https://doi.org/10.1177/0957926506068430

Hobbs, V. (2015a) Women on trial: one observer’s view. The Aquila Report, 12 February. http://theaquilareport.com/women-on-trial-%0Aone-observers-view/%0A

Hobbs, V. (2015b) Transcript of Speeches during the Appeal of [Dr Smith] from June 5–6. Sioux Center, IA: Dordt College.

Hobbs, V. (2015c) Confronting a culture of skepticism about disability: the appeal of Dr John Carrick. The Aquila Report, 24 June. http://theaquilareport.com/an-overview-

Hursthouse, R. (2008) The good and bad family. In L. Thomas (ed.) Contemporary Debates in Social Philosophy 57–68. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.

Immanuel Presbyterian Church (2013) Report of a Sponsoring Session Respecting the Board’s Actions Culminating in the Non-Renewal of Professor [Smith]’s Teaching Contract.

Kiley, K. (2011) Loss of faith in tenure. Inside Higher Ed, 18 May. https://www.

Lakoff, R. T. and Bucholtz, M. (2004) Language and Woman’s Place: Text and Commentaries. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Li, J. (2010) Transitivity and lexical cohesion: press representations of a political disaster and its actors. Journal of Pragmatics 42(12): 3444–58. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pragma.2010.04.028

Lindsay, M. D. (2006) Elite power: social networks within American evangelicalism. Sociology of Religion 67(3): 207–27. https://doi.org/10.1093/socrel/67.3.207

Lingle, W. L. and Kuykendall, J. D. (1978) Presbyterians: Their History and Beliefs. Atlanta, GA: John Knox Press.

Lupu, I. C. (1987) Free exercise exemption and religious institutions: the case of employment discrimination. Boston University Law Review 67(3): 391–1019.

MacLeod, N. J. (2010) Police Interviews with Women Reporting Rape: A Critical Discourse Analysis. Aston University.

Mawdsley, R. D. (2011) Employment, sexual orientation, and religious beliefs: do religious educational institutions have a protected right to discriminate in the selection and discharge of employees. Brigham Young University Education and Law Journal 2011(2): 279–302. http://heinonline.org/HOL/Page?handle=hein.journals/byuelj2011andid=285anddiv=16andcollection=journals

Mayr, A. (2008) Language and Power: An Introduction to Institutional Discourse. London, UK: Continuum.

Minton, C. A. and Dodder, R. A. (2003) Participation in religious services by people with developmental disabilities. Mental Retardation 41(6): 430–9. https://doi.org/10.1352/0047-6765(2003)41<430:PIRSBP>2.0.CO;2

Mumby, D. K. and Clair, R. P. (1997) Organizational discourse. In T. A. van Dijk (ed.) Discourse as Social Interaction 181–205. London, UK: Sage.

Naidoo, R. (2004) Fields and institutional strategy: Bourdieu on the relationship between higher education, inequality and society. British Journal of Sociology of Education 25(4): 457–71. https://doi.org/10.1080/0142569042000236952

Norris, P. (1997) Introduction: women, media and politics. In P. Norris (ed.) Women, Media and Politics 1–18. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Onedera, J. D. (2007) The Role of Religion in Marriage and Family Counseling. New York, NY: Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203941232

OPC (2015) Minutes of the Eighty-Second General Assembly. Willow Grove, PA.

Powlinson, D. (2010) The Biblical Counseling Movement. Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press.

PSE (2013) Minutes of the Special Meeting of the Presbytery of the Southeast, 19 January.

Pynnönen, A. and Takala, T. (2015) The discursive dance: the employee co-operation negotiations as an arena for management-by-fear. Journal of Business Ethics 1–20. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-015-2991-8

Richardson, J. E. (2006) Analysing Newspapers: An Approach from Critical Discourse Analysis. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Ruether, R. R. (2002) Christianity and the Making of the Modern Family. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Schmid, J. and Fiedler, K. (1996) Language and implicit attributions in the Nuremberg trials: analyzing prosecutors’ and defense attorneys’ closing speeches. Human Communication Research 22(3): 371–98. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-2958.1996.tb00372.x

Schmid, J., Fiedler, K., Englich, B., Ehrenberger, T. and Semin, G. R. (1996) Taking sides with the defendant: grammatical choice and the influence of implicit attributions in prosecution and defense speeches. International Journal of Psycholinguistics 12(2): 127–48.

Smith, A. B., Filkins, T., Schmeltekopf, D. D. and Bateman, J. M. (2005) Profiles of Christian college presidents: how they differ from other college presidents. Christian Higher Education 4(2): 129–43. https://doi.org/10.1080/15363750590925307

Tanner, M. N., Zvonkovic, A. M. and Adams, C. (2012) Forced termination of American clergy: its effects and connection to negative well-being. Review of Religious Research 54(1): 1–17. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13644-011-0041-2

Thomas, L. (2008) Introduction: virtuous disagreements in social philosophy. In L. Thomas (ed.) Contemporary Debates in Social Philosophy 1–16. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.

Thompson, G. (2013) Introducing Functional Grammar. London, UK: Routledge.

Thornborrow, T. and Brown, A. D. (2009) Being regimented: aspiration, discipline and identity work in the British parachute regiment. Organization Studies 30(4): 355–76. https://doi.org/10.1177/0170840608101140

Uhlmann, E. L. and Cohen, G. L. (2005) Constructed criteria: redefining merit to justify discrimination. Psychological Science 16(6): 474–80.

Underkuffler, L. S. (1988) Discrimination on the basis of religion: an examination of attempted value neutrality in employment. William and Mary Law Review 30(1): 581–626.

Van Dijk, T. A. (1993) Principles of critical discourse analysis. Discourse and Society 4: 249–83. https://doi.org/10.1177/0957926593004002001; https://doi.org/10.1177/

Van Dijk, T. A. (1996) Discourse, power and access. In C. Caldas-Coulthard and M. Coulthard (eds) Texts and Practices: Readings in Critical Discourse Analysis 84–104. London, UK: Routledge.

Van Leeuwen, T. (2008) Discourse and Practice: New Tools for Critical Discourse Analysis. Oxford: Oxford University Press. https://doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195323306.001.0001

Verter, B. (2003) Spiritual capital: theorizing religion with Bourdieu against Bourdieu. Sociological Theory 21(2): 150–74. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-9558.00182

Wall, J., Stahl, B. C. and Salam, A. F. (2015) Critical discourse analysis as a review methodology: an empirical example. Communications of the Association for Information Systems 37: 257–85.

Westwood, R., and Linstead, S. (2001) The Language of Organization. London, UK: Sage. https://doi.org/10.4135/9781446217368.n11; https://doi.org/10.4135/9781446217368

Wodak, R. (1996) Disorders of Discourse. New York, NY: Addison Wesley Longman.

Wodak, R. and Meyer, M. (2009) Critical discourse analysis: history, agenda, theory and methodology. In R. Wodak and M. Meyer (eds) Methods of Critical Discourse Analysis 1–33. London, England: SAGE Publications, Sage UK.

Yong, A. (2011) The Bible, Disability, and the Church: A New Vision of the People of God. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Zimmer, M. J. and Sullivan, C. A. (2017) Cases and Materials on Employment Discrimination. Frederick, MD: Wolters Kluwer Law and Business.



How to Cite

Hobbs, V. (2018). Disability, the ‘good family’ and discrimination in the dismissal of a Presbyterian seminary professor. Journal of Language and Discrimination, 2(2), 133-161. https://doi.org/10.1558/jld.35571