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Trial court to consider if university punished student for refusing to counsel gay students

by Brad A. Greenberg

January 31, 2012 | 12:31 pm

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals has reversed summary judgment in an interesting free-speech and free-exercise case involving a graduate university student who refused to counsel a gay student. Howard Friedman at Religion Clause explains the background:

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 district court granted summary judgment in favor of Eastern Michigan University, meaning that there was no dispute over a material issue of fact and that the university was entitled to having Ward’s claims dismissed as a material of law. But the Sixth Circuit disagreed (full opinion here).

The judges reasoning boils down to this:

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…..

In other words, a material issue of fact exists as to whether the university’s practices could be used—or against Ward were used—to discriminate against a viewpoint that the university disfavored. The case now will go back to the district court for trial on the merits.

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