Today, the Sixth Circuit issued a major victory for the constitutional rights of individuals with religious beliefs. The court held that Eastern Michigan University may have violated the Constitution by expelling a counseling student based on her religious beliefs about homosexual conduct.
“No individual should be forced out of their profession solely because of her religious beliefs,” said Eric Rassbach, National Litigation Director at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. “Counselors refer clients elsewhere all the time for personal, financial, or ethical reasons, and referrals for religious reasons should be treated no differently,” he added.
The Becket Fund submitted a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, making arguments that the court ultimately adopted under the Free Exercise Clause. The Becket Fund also assisted with Ms. Ward’s primary brief.
Julea Ward was a graduate student in the counseling program at Eastern Michigan University. With just four classes remaining until graduation, and a 3.91 grade point average, Ward was required to complete a counseling practicum, in which she counseled clients under the supervision of a faculty member. Ward made 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 for permission to refer a homosexual client to another counselor, and the supervisor granted permission. But shortly thereafter, 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 Sixth Circuit ruled that she had presented enough evidence of discrimination to allow her suit to go before a jury: “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,” said the court. “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.”