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The Julea Ward Settlement: A Win for Religious Liberty

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Alliance Defending Freedom recently settled a lawsuit brought on behalf of Julea Ward, a former graduate student at Eastern Michigan University who was expelled from her counseling program after refusing to violate her religious beliefs. Media reports have unfortunately suggested that Julea’s lawsuit involved her refusal to counsel a client because he identified as gay: this is untrue.

Instead, her case involved her religious objection to being forced to provide counseling about sexual relationships outside of marriage, an objection which applies equally to homosexual and heterosexual clients.

Her objection is to providing counseling on certain topics, not to counseling any particular group.

So the claim that Julea refused to see clients who identified as gay is patently false.

The actual facts are that Julea faced a values conflict when a potential client sought counseling about a homosexual relationship. Recognizing the likely values conflict with the client, she asked her professor whether she should refer him before any meeting took place and was instructed to do so. But the University charged Julea with “imposing values” on the potential client, and disobeying ethical rules that apply to counselors. It then expelled her from the program, even though she was a stellar student who was carrying a 3.91 GPA.

Julea’s referral request was not a renegade act. Indeed, the American Counseling Association Code of Ethics, which the University requires students to follow, broadly allows for referrals anytime a counselor determines an “inability to be of professional assistance,” and also endorses referrals where a counselor’s personal beliefs prevent her from providing end-of-life counseling.

Other permissible referrals would include an atheist counselor referring a Christian client seeking help with a crisis of faith, and a pro-abortion counselor referring a pregnant client who wants to keep her baby. These and many other values-based referrals (including the one Julea inquired about) are permissible precisely because they are in the best interests of the client.

Despite all this, the University targeted Julea for punishment because it disagreed with her religious beliefs. But public universities are for everyone, not just those who follow politically correct trends.

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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