Sixth Circuit Rules in Favor of Christian University Student in Religious Discrimination Case

A Sixth Circuit panel has ruled unanimously in favor of a Christian university student who claims that Eastern Michigan University expelled her from its graduate counseling program because of her religious beliefs. Julea Ward told the university that as a Christian she could not affirm same-sex relationships (as well as non-marital heterosexual relationships); when a client in her counseling practicum sought counseling about a same-sex relationship, Ward asked that the client be referred to a different counselor. As a result, the university commenced a disciplinary proceeding and eventually expelled her from the program, ostensibly because the university had a blanket policy against students referring clients to other counselors. When Ward sued the university under title VII, claiming the university had dismissed her in violation of her free speech and free exercise rights, the district court granted summary judgment for the university.

Today, the Sixth Circuit reversed. Writing for the panel, Judge Sutton held that a jury could reasonably find that the “no referral” policy was merely a pretext the university had manufactured after the fact. Even worse, a jury could find that it was a poor pretext: there was evidence that the university allowed students to refer clients to other counselors for certain “secular” reasons.  A jury could thus find that the no-referrals rule was not neutral with respect to religion; as a result, under Employment Division v. Smith, the university would have to show a compelling interest to justify the rule – which, on the record, seemed very unlikely. The Sixth Circuit distinguished last month’s decision by the Eleventh Circuit in Keeton v. Anderson Wiley, which CLR Forum discussed here. Today’s case is Ward v. Polite (6th Cir., slip op. Jan. 27, 2012).

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