In 2009, Julea Ward, a graduate student at Eastern Michigan University, was dismissed from the school’s counseling program after asking for permission to refer a client to another counselor because she was uncomfortable affirming the same-sex relationship of the client. A federal trial court ruled in favor of the university saying, the school had “permissibly enforced a neutral and generally applicable curricular requirement against [Ms. Ward] and did not target her because of her speech or religious beliefs.”
Then, in January of this year, the Sixth Circuit ruled that since the American Counseling Association’s ethics code “does not prohibit values-based referrals” and “a reasonable jury could find . . . that the university deployed it as a pretext for punishing [the student’s] religious views and speech.” The court also said the “university cannot compel a student to alter or violate her belief systems based on a phantom policy as the price for obtaining a degree.” The court explained the university could adopt an anti-discrimination policy but that its implementation was faulty, “permitting secular exemptions but not religious ones and failing to apply the policy in an even-handed, much less faith-neutral, manner.” In regards to the student’s free exercise claim, “an exception-ridden policy takes on the appearance and reality of a system of individualized exemptions, the antithesis of a neutral and generally applicable policy and just the kind of state action that must run the gauntlet of strict scrutiny.” Here the court saw no compelling interest in the university’s actions because “a referral would be in the best interest of [the student] (who could counsel someone she is better able to assist) and the client (who would receive treatment from a counselor better suited to discuss his relationship issues).” The court said: “Tolerance is a two-way street. Otherwise, the rule mandates orthodoxy, not anti-discrimination.”
Given all of this, it is not surprising that the university has decided to settle the case and will be paying Ms. Ward $75,000. The University says it is keeping its policy in place but given the requirements the Sixth Circuit has explained, it can no longer apply it in the intolerant way it did to Julea Ward.