So we filed suit to defend every Americans’ God-given right to live in accordance with the dictates of their conscience. And although the district court did not protect this right, the Sixth Circuit reversed in a strongly worded opinion that firmly establishes that “discriminating against the religious views of a student is not a legitimate end of a public school.” Julea’s settlement enforces that principle, expunging the black mark of expulsion from her record and providing her with $75,000, a portion of which she can use to cover the educational expenses incurred as a result of the University’s misconduct.
The settlement not only rights the wrongs the University did to Julea personally, it also leaves the Sixth Circuit’s opinion intact, which is a major win for religious liberty. The opinion held that “the First Amendment does not permit educators to invoke curriculum as a pretext for punishing a student for her religion.” Regardless of what policies a public university puts into place, it cannot use them to target students’ religious beliefs for punishment.
Even more importantly, the Sixth Circuit explained that “[t]olerance is a two-way street,” and that any rule that compels affirmation of homosexual conduct and discriminates against contrary religious beliefs “mandates orthodoxy, not anti-discrimination,” in direct violation of the First Amendment.
Religious students are thus protected from public universities’ perverse attempts to prevent them from living out their faith in the name of “non-discrimination.” In the future, universities are on notice that they “cannot compel a student to alter or violate her belief systems based on a phantom policy as the price for obtaining a degree.” Even if an established policy exists, universities must apply it in a “faith-neutral manner” and are forbidden from “permitting secular exemptions but not religious ones.”
Thus, the University’s claims that the settlement “leaves the University’s policies, programs, and curricular requirements intact” and that the “faculty retains its right to establish, in its learned judgment, the curriculum and program requirements for the counseling program” are irrelevant. The point is that university policies must be applied in a manner that respects students’ First Amendment rights, which is where the University went wrong with Julea.
Put simply, the Sixth Circuit’s opinion requires public universities to respect students’ fundamental religious freedoms and ensures that the maltreatment Julea experienced will not be in vain. And that is a big win for students everywhere.
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