The Corner

A Major Victory for Religious Liberty and Freedom of Conscience

So far, 2012 has been a good year for religious liberty in federal court. Two weeks ago the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that religious organizations have a First Amendment right to choose their ministers — even in the face of federal nondiscrimination policies. Today, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a trial-court ruling that essentially allowed Eastern Michigan University to erect a “no Christians allowed” sign outside its graduate counseling program. I explained the case almost three years ago (when it was first filed):

Eastern Michigan University expelled Julea Ward because she was unwilling to vocally support same-sex sexual conduct in counseling sessions. They expelled her in spite of the fact that the she referred to another counselor the only client for whom her stance was relevant and had never even engaged the issue with that client. They expelled her in spite of the fact that she followed the exact process for referral recommended by leaders in the profession. In short, they expelled her not because she harmed anyone but simply because she was unwilling to express support for things she did not believe.

Applying an astonishingly broad policy that prohibits students from even “condoning” discrimination (whatever that means), the university informed Julea that she would have to “see the error of her ways” and change her “belief system” to stay in school. She refused to change her deeply held beliefs, refused to voice support for actions she finds immoral, and found herself out of the program — in spite of a stellar GPA.

The trial court had essentially ruled that the university could do whatever it wanted with its curriculum, and if it wanted to mandate that Christian students affirm homosexuality while granting referrals and exemptions to other students on other issues, it could. The Sixth Circuit disagreed, strongly:  

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. 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. 

The stakes of this case were very high. If the university had prevailed, students would truly have been at the mercy of ad hoc ideological demands reformulated as “curricular requirements.” Understanding the stakes for individual liberty, the Michigan attorney general, the American Center for Law and Justice (where I’m a senior counsel), the Becket Fund, Eugene Volokh, and others submitted amicus briefs on Ward’s behalf. They were opposed by, among others, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, LAMBDA Legal, and the ACLU.

I argued the case at the trial-court level (and cough lost cough) when I was at the Alliance Defense Fund and was on the appellate briefs, but the credit and congratulations go to Julea Ward, my former ADF colleagues, and my friend ADF attorney Jeremy Tedesco, who argued the case at the Sixth Circuit. Well done, Jeremy.