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).

11th Circuit Rules Against Christian Student in Religious Discrimination Case

Last Friday, the 11th Circuit dismissed a lawsuit a graduate student had brought against Augusta State University in Georgia, arguing her expulsion from the university’s school-counseling program violated her constitutional rights. The student, a Christian, had expressed skeptical views about homosexual identity and conduct, and the university required her to participate in a “remediation plan” to make sure that her views did not affect the counseling she would provide clients in the program’s clinical practicum, particularly clients from the “gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer/questioning (GLBTQ) populations.” When she refused to do so, the university expelled her. The 11th Circuit ruled that her expulsion violated neither her free speech nor free exercise rights. Briefly, with respect to the former, the court noted that the student would be advising clients in a university-sponsored clinic; the university thus could require her to conduct herself in accordance with the American Counseling Association’s code of ethics, which forbids counselors from imposing moral views on clients. The university was not disciplining the student for her religious views, in other words, but for failing to agree to put them aside in accordance with her professional responsibilities. With respect to the student’s free exercise claims, the court held that school’s requirement that students abide by the ACA code, notwithstanding their own religious convictions, was neutral and generally applicable, and rationally related to the university’s legitimate interest in maintaining its accreditation. The case is Keeton v. Anderson-Wiley (Dec. 16, 2011).

Catholic Bishops Focus on Religious Liberty

Here is a story that should be of some  interest to those who work on and think about religious liberty.  The story, notwithstanding various slanted statements in it (the bishops did not “reorder their priorities” between the 1980s and the 1990s, all of a sudden deciding that abortion was very important to them) as well as several rhetorical lowlights (using words like “ire” and so on to describe what are religious beliefs, suggesting that Catholic beliefs have been strategically “recast” in certain ways), seems at least accurately to report a new focus of the bishops on questions of religious liberty.

The piece is another indication that John Allen had it exactly right.

Weddle & New on Religious Conservative Opposition to Anti-Bullying Legislation

Daniel B. Weddle (University of Missouri – Kansas City School of Law) and Kathryn E. New (recent graduate of University of Missouri – Kansas City School of Law) have posted What Did Jesus Do?: Answering Religious Conservatives Who Oppose Bullying Prevention Legislation. The abstract follows.—YAH

Conservative Christian organizations assert that anti-bullying programs are a stealth effort by gay activists to introduce into American schools an aggressive lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) agenda. They contend that legislation and bullying prevention programs that mention gays are an attempt to indoctrinate children to embrace homosexual lifestyles; tolerate homosexual behavior; and celebrate homosexuality, bisexuality, and transgender identity. These voices are having an impact on state legislatures and the damage is immense. Educational research has made clear the devastating effects of bullying upon children, and LGBT students are among the most often targeted and least protected students. Given that schools are already failing to address bullying effectively, efforts to thwart protection of any group of students — especially one that is routinely targeted — is unconscionable. Yet these devoted Christians zealously interfere with protection of LGBT students from abuse by their peers and believe wholeheartedly that they are doing children and Christ a great service. We believe they fundamentally misunderstand three things: the dynamics of bullying, the law pertaining to student-on-student abuse, and the example and teachings of Christ. This Article addresses these misunderstandings. We propose a response to the distortions that are used to promote what is an anti-gay agenda that represents neither the teachings of the Bible nor the position of most Christians and evangelicals, whom these organizations purport to represent. Our hope is that, once the distortions are debunked, thinking Christians will reject the misguided efforts of a relatively few but influential individuals and organizations. If new voices can confront the misleading claims of anti-gay zealots with informed educational, legal, and Biblical responses, perhaps the distortions will be seen for what they are by Christians and non-Christians alike.

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