Julea Ward’s Case Goes to a Jury

I see that Ed Whelan got there before me, but I too have just read the excellent opinion by Judge Sutton for the unanimous Sixth Circuit panel in Ward v. Polite.  To reiterate the case a bit: Julea Ward, a student in a graduate program in counseling at Eastern Michigan, was enrolled in a required practicum as she neared completion of her degree.  When she was assigned a client who wanted counseling about a same-sex relationship, Ward requested of her faculty supervisor that the client be referred to someone else, because Ward, a Christian, had a “religious objection to affirming same-sex relationships.”  The referral was made, but a subsequent “formal review” of Ward’s status in the program resulted in her expulsion from it.  When she sued the university alleging violation of her freedom of speech and free exercise of religion, a federal district court entered summary judgment for the university, based on the claim that the university (and the American Counseling Association, accrediting EMU’s program) had a strict no-referral policy.  Today the Sixth Circuit unanimously reversed, and sent the case to a jury in the district court below, saying that “a reasonable jury” could find that the university made up a post hoc no-referral policy for whose prior existence there was no evidence.  The ACA does not mandate a no-referral policy, and neither did the university.  Other referrals had been made for non-religious reasons, and it appeared reasonable to conclude that Ward had been singled out for ill treatment because of her religious scruples about homosexuality.  The court differentiated this from the situation of another student in the Eleventh Circuit, who lost her case in December because she declared she wanted to practice “conversion therapy” on homosexual clients.  (See Keeton v. Anderson-Wiley.)  By contrast, Judge Sutton said, Ward did not want to push her views on clients or anyone else—she only wanted not to be forced to act or speak contrary to her own beliefs as the price of her degree.

But imagine if the ACA and EMU had, already in place, unequivocal no-referral policies, predicated on some pedagogical norm that is even plausibly defensible.  Then a case like Julea Ward’s would be in much more danger of failure.  It may require legislation, state or federal, to protect the religious conscience rights of students adequately.

Matthew J. Franck — Matthew J. Franck is the Director of the William E. and Carol G. Simon Center on Religion and the Constitution at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, New Jersey.

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