Julea Ward at Eastern Michigan University
Julea Ward (Courtesy of Alliance Defense Fund)

I posted a year-and-a-half ago on two cases where Christian counseling students were expelled from their graduate counseling programs because they believed homosexuality was wrong.  At the time one of these cases, Eastern Michigan University’s decision to expel Julea Ward had been affirmed in Federal district court.

Yesterday the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the lower court’s decision.  This is a huge victory for protecting the religious liberty of students.  As the court held that Eastern Michigan University may have violated the Constitution by expelling Ward based on her religious beliefs about homosexual conduct.

A recap of what happened leading up to her expulsion.  Ward was a graduate student in Eastern Michigan University’s counseling program.  She had four classes left to take before graduation.  She maintained a 3.91 GPA in her program.  She was required to complete a counseling practicum, in which she would counsel clients under the supervision of a faculty member.  She made it clear that she was willing to counsel homosexual clients on a variety of matters, but that her religious beliefs would forbid her from affirming their same-sex relationships.

In one instance she asked her faculty supervisor permission to refer her client to another counselor.  Permission was granted for her to do this.  Soon after she was expelled from the University on the ground that the referral violated the university’s code of ethics. She then filed a lawsuit, alleging that the expulsion violated her rights of free speech and free exercise of religion.

The court in writing its opinion wrote:

Ward was willing to work with all clients and to respect the school’s affirmation directives in doing so. That is why she asked to refer gay and lesbian clients (and some heterosexual clients) if the conversation required her to affirm their sexual practices. What more could the rule require? Surely, for example, the ban on discrimination against clients based on their religion (1) does not require a Muslim counselor to tell a Jewish client that his religious beliefs are correct if the conversation takes a turn in that direction and (2) does not require an atheist counselor to tell a person of faith that there is a God if the client is wrestling with faith-based issues. Tolerance is a two-way street. Otherwise, the rule mandates orthodoxy, not anti-discrimination. (Emphasis is mine)

Exactly, as I said in my original post:

Not only have these schools prohibited the free exercise of religion, but by telling these students they can stay if they believe differently is establishing a religious doctrine.  I’m sure they don’t see it that way, but we all have religious beliefs.  Nobody lives in a moral and religious vacuum.

The court pointed out evidence of religious speech discrimination during the University’s disciplinary inquiry:

Many of the participants’ comments and questions focused on Ward’s beliefs and her religious objection to affirming same-sex relationships. Professor Dugger said that Ward “communicated an attempt to maintain [her] belief system and [her] behaviors,” id. at 8, and dismissed the religious basis of Ward’s objections: She offered her “professional opinion” that Ward was “selectively using her religious beliefs in order to rationalize her discrimination against one group of people” because Ward said that she could “set aside her religious values” and counsel clients about things such as “abortion, child abuse, and murder” but “could not set aside her religious values in order to effectively counsel nonheterosexual clients.” Id. at 5–6. This line of inquiry suggests a distinction between secular values and spiritual ones, with a preference for the former over the latter. Besides, the reason why Ward (in Professor Dugger’s words) could “set aside her religious values” in counseling clients about “abortion, child abuse, and murder” is because the university likely would not insist that she affirm the values underlying this conduct.

Pressing these points, Dugger asked Ward whether she would “see [her] brand of Christianity as superior to” that of a Christian client who viewed her faith differently. Id. at 28. In the same vein, Professor Marx queried “how someone with such strong religious beliefs [as Ward’s] would enter a profession that would cause [her] to go against those beliefs . . . by its stated code of ethics.” Id. at 31. And Professor Francis took Ward “on a little bit of a theological bout,” id. at 28, asking whether she believed that “anyone [is] more righteous than another before God?” and whether, if Ward’s stated beliefs were true, “doesn’t that mean that you’re all on the same boat and shouldn’t [gays and lesbians] be accorded the same respect and honor that God would give them?”

Evidence of the faculty’s hostility to Christianity in this instance is made plain, and the court in their ruling said:

Many of the faculty members’ statements to Ward raise a similar concern about religious discrimination. A reasonable jury could find that the university dismissed Ward from its counseling program because of her faith-based speech, not because of any legitimate pedagogical objective. A university cannot compel a student to alter or violate her belief systems based on a phantom policy as the price for obtaining a degree.

They continue…

On its face, the ACA code of ethics sets forth neutral and generally applicable policies, and the university has ample authority to adopt these policies, including the anti-discrimination provisions, for the school’s graduate counseling program. What poses a problem is not the adoption of an anti-discrimination policy; it is the implementation of the policy, permitting secular exemptions but not religious ones and failing to apply the policy in an even-handed, much less a faith-neutral, manner to Ward.

This case has now been remanded to district court for further proceedings to go before a jury instead of the decision being made by an individual judge.

You can read the whole opinion for yourself below:

Ward v. Wilbanks: 6th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion

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