Wiccan professor sues St. Bonaventure for discrimination

Local News

An associate professor at St. Bonaventure says university officials discriminated against her when she was the dean of communications because of her gender and Wiccan religious beliefs.

As a result, Pauline Hoffmann, of Franklinville, filed a complaint in federal court against her university in Allegany.

Hoffmann, during an interview with News 4 Investigates, said she exhausted all administrative remedies with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, who provided her with a “right to sue” letter.

Her lawsuit comes at a time when the state Division of Human Rights reported last year that “the number of new case filings saw a considerable uptick” compared to the year prior, with 84 percent of the complaints being employment cases.

Similarly, Lindy Korn and Richard J. Perry, Hoffmann’s attorneys who specialize in discrimination cases, said their caseloads have doubled. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reports that 6,295 religious based charges have been filed with the agency over the past two fiscal years.

Hoffmann told News 4 that university officials passed her over for the provost position and that she felt pressured to resign as dean of the school of communication in 2017, a job in which she said her contract period was one-third shorter than her male counterparts.

Instead, the university gave the provost job to a male, and eventually hired a new dean, who is also a male.

She said university officials have expressed concerns with her being a Wiccan at a Catholic institution.

According to Wicca.com, “Wicca is a belief system and way of life based upon the reconstruction of pre-Christian traditions originating in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales” and “is a very peaceful, harmonious and balanced way of life which promotes oneness with the divine and all which exists.” They are often referred to as “witches,” with more than 340,000 people identifying themselves as Wiccan throughout the nation, according to the American Religious Identification Survey.

Hoffmann also alleges in her complaint that the new provost was told by university officials to “solve the Pauline problem,” to which she said she has no knowledge of what that could mean.

As a result of feeling pressure to resign as dean and being passed over for the provost position, Hoffmann said she saw a significant reduction in pay to return as an associate professor.

St. Bonaventure officials declined comment.

“Since this is both a personnel and legal matter, it’s not our policy or appropriate for the university to comment on the case,” said Tom Missel, chief communications officer.

Hoffmann tries to move up

Hoffmann was not always Wiccan.

She grew up in Alden where she was surrounded by Catholic, Baptist and Lutheran churches. She asked her dad why they never went to church, to which he replied, “religion is something that is so very personal that when you are old enough to decide what you believe or not that is up to you,’” she said.

“At the time, you want to be like your friends, but now I am so thankful for that,” Hoffmann said.

She attended St. Bonaventure as an undergrad and took a religion course that she said opened her eyes to other viewpoints. As a biology major, she had a love for the environment and Wicca resonated with her because she said it is a nature-based religion. But it is also the duality of having a god and a goddess who are equal that appealed to her spiritual senses.

How did senior management find out that Hoffmann was Wiccan?

She said the university television station had reached out to her to discuss publicly what being a Wiccan meant to her, and it was at that time she informed senior management of her religious background.

Once they knew, “it became an issue at that point.”

Hoffmann said that she had been serving as an assistant professor and interim dean at the time when she tried to get the dean position outright.

“They kind of hemmed and hawed, and they had told me that one of the issues that they were having is that I’m Wiccan and that that might be a problem,” Hoffmann said.

In 2012, Hoffmann said the provost required her to sign a document vowing to uphold Catholic values, to which she asked, “if I were Jewish would I have to sign this?”

“If you were Jewish, then I guess not,” she recalled his response being. “You might not want to be so overt about being a witch if you want to move up.”

Hoffmann also said that the then-president also said to her, “I took a big chance hiring you as a Wiccan.”

She said she would later learn that while she was given a two-year contract as dean, her male counterparts got three-year contracts.

“And it just escalated from there, and once the provost position became available as an interim … I was interested in that position, went for it, and didn’t get it,” she said.

I suspect because I’m Wiccan because that was established when I became the dean, and after that point it escalated the behaviors toward me. I had the now-provost saying to me, ‘You know the board wants me to fire you, they want me to solve the Pauline problem,’ yet no one could ever articulate for me what that meant.

As a result, Hoffmann said she was beginning to feel stressed and lose sleep. So, she returned to teaching at the university.

“This is not the way I want my life to be, I don’t want to be harassed and treated this way,” she said.

“I felt pressured to be quiet about being Wiccan,” she said. And after a certain point, I did just feel the pressure that, OK, they clearly don’t want me in this job and it almost wasn’t worth it for me. It was emotionally and physically taxing for me.

Perry, her co-counsel, said that in general, cases like this don’t typically end with the plaintiff getting the job they sought; rather, plaintiffs who win these lawsuits are awarded monetary damages.

“Emotional distress is a type of damage that comes out in most discrimination cases,” he said. “That’s what the package might look like at the end if there is a judgment.”

Nonetheless, Hoffmann would like to be reimbursed for lost pay and compensated for the damages. 

Korn, her chief counsel, said religious discrimination cases are “going through the roof.”

“In my firm we have seen a tremendous uptick of those claims,” she said.

I believe the EOOC and perhaps the Division of Human rights would mirror this statement. As to why that’s happening at this time in our country, I am not quite sure, but certainly we’ve seen a lot of hate on the rise and when there is a value driven emotional element at stake I suppose that’s easy prey.

Hoffmann said that since she returned as an educator and no longer holds a position of authority, she has not felt any pushback from the university brass.

“I can’t lie and say that I’m not a little bit nervous though,” she said.

But I’m still persevering. I love my job, I love my students, I love what I do.

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