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.

Most Popular

U.S.

The Gun-Control Debate Could Break America

Last night, the nation witnessed what looked a lot like an extended version of the famous “two minutes hate” from George Orwell’s novel 1984. During a CNN town hall on gun control, a furious crowd of Americans jeered at two conservatives, Marco Rubio and Dana Loesch, who stood in defense of the Second ... Read More
Law & the Courts

Obstruction Confusions

In his Lawfare critique of one of my several columns about the purported obstruction case against President Trump, Gabriel Schoenfeld loses me — as I suspect he will lose others — when he says of himself, “I do not think I am Trump-deranged.” Gabe graciously expresses fondness for me, and the feeling is ... Read More
Politics & Policy

Students’ Anti-Gun Views

Are children innocents or are they leaders? Are teenagers fully autonomous decision-makers, or are they lumps of mental clay, still being molded by unfolding brain development? The Left seems to have a particularly hard time deciding these days. Take, for example, the high-school students from Parkland, ... Read More
PC Culture

Kill Chic

We live in a society in which gratuitous violence is the trademark of video games, movies, and popular music. Kill this, shoot that in repugnant detail becomes a race to the visual and spoken bottom. We have gone from Sam Peckinpah’s realistic portrayal of violent death to a gory ritual of metal ripping ... Read More