Saturday, January 28, 2012

6th Circuit: Christian Counseling Student May Go To Trial Over Required Counseling of Gay Client

In Ward v. Polite, (6th Cir., Jan. 27, 2012), the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a Michigan trial court's grant of summary judgment in favor of Eastern Michigan University (see prior posting) and held that a former graduate student's free-speech and free-exercise claims should go to trial. At issue was whether counseling student Julea Ward, who was enrolled in a practicum course, could because of her Christian religious beliefs refuse to counsel a gay client or at least have her faculty supervisor refer the client to another counselor if same-sex relationship issues arose. The University took disciplinary action against Ward under its rules that prohibit counseling students from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation and require them to affirm a client’s values during counseling sessions. The 6th Circuit, held, however:
The key problem with the university’s position is not the adoption of this anti-discrimination policy, the existence of the practicum class or even the values-affirming message the school wants students to understand and practice. It is that the school does not have a no-referral policy for practicum students and adheres to an ethics code that permits values-based referrals in general. When the facts are construed in Ward’s favor, as they must be at this stage of the case, a reasonable jury could conclude that Ward’s professors ejected her from the counseling program because of hostility toward her speech and faith, not due to a policy against referrals.....
The court explained:
Although educators may “limit[]” or “grade[] speech in the classroom in the name of learning,” and although they may control their own speech and curriculum, the First Amendment does not permit educators to invoke curriculum “as a pretext for punishing [a] student for her . . . religion.”... Even in the context of a secular university, religious speech is still speech, and discriminating against the religious views of a student is not a legitimate end of a public school.
The court emphasized that the ultimate outcome of the case will depend on how a jury evaluates conflicting claims:
a jury might credit the university’s claim that ... practicum students were subject to a general ban on referrals, making it difficult for Ward to demonstrate that she was expelled on pretextual grounds as opposed to the ground that she refused to adhere to a general and reasonable curricular requirement.
The Detroit Free Press reports on the decision.