Court: Anti-Religious Bigotry Just Might Violate the Constitution
The Sixth Circuit ruled today (in Ward v. Polite) that the First Amendment prohibits a university from expelling a student because it doesn't agree with the student's speech and faith. That might sound like a no-brainer, but in fact, the Sixth Circuit was reversing a lower court decision that had summarily dismissed a lawsuit filed by Julea Ward, a student in Eastern Michigan University's graduate-level counseling program. Ed Whelan at NRO Bench Memos summarizes the gist of Ward's lawsuit:
Ward’s Christian religious beliefs prevented her from counseling clients in a manner that would affirm same-sex or extramarital relationships. When the university asked Ward, as part of a student practicum, to counsel a gay client, she asked either that the client be referred to another student or that she be permitted to begin counseling and to make a referral if the counseling session turned to same-sex relationship issues. The university’s ultimate response was to expel Ward from the graduate program. (Emphasis mine.)
Not that the university has anything against counselors making referrals, in general. It has rules allowing referrals for all sorts of reasons, including "values." But referrals based on religious belief, evidently, are beyond the pale. Bizarrely, the university expelled Ward on the grounds that she was trying to impose her beliefs on others, when she had been scrupulously trying to avoid a situation in which she might be tempted to do so.
The district court granted "summary judgment" to the university -- in other words, the court said that Ward had no First Amendment case even if she could prove all of her allegations. So it stopped the case from even going to trial. Now, the Sixth Circuit did not say that the university definitely did violate Ward's right. But the Court did say that Ward's case deserves to go to trial because if she can prove her allegations, then she will have a valid First Amendment claim.