Is Discrimination Against Christians Legal?

Can a public university expel a student for a religiously-motivated aversion to homosexuality?

Some conservative blogs are fuming over a Fox News report of a Christian student being punished for believing homosexuality is immoral.   But there’s more to the story than anti-religious bigotry.

A federal judge has ruled in favor of a public university that removed a Christian student from its graduate program in school counseling over her belief that homosexuality is morally wrong. Monday’s ruling, according to Julea Ward’s attorneys, could result in Christian students across the country being expelled from public university for similar views.

“It’s a very dangerous precedent,” Jeremy Tedesco, legal counsel for the conservative Alliance Defense Fund, told FOX News Radio. “The ruling doesn’t say that explicitly, but that’s what is going to happen.”

U.S. District Judge George Caram Steeh dismissed Ward’s lawsuit against Eastern Michigan University. She was removed from the school’s counseling program last year because she refused to counsel homosexual clients.

The university contended she violated school policy and the American Counseling Association code of ethics.

“Christian students shouldn’t be expelled for holding to and abiding by their beliefs,” said ADF senior counsel David French. “To reach its decision, the court had to do something that’s never been done in federal court: uphold an extremely broad and vague university speech code.”

“We are pleased that the court has upheld our position in this matter,” EMU spokesman Walter Kraft said in a written statement. “Julea Ward was not discriminated against because of her religion. To the contrary, Eastern Michigan is deeply committed to the education of our students and welcomes individuals from diverse backgrounds into our community.”

In his 48-page opinion, Judge Steeh said the university had a rational basis for adopting the ACA Code of Ethics. “Furthermore, the university had a rational basis for requiring students to counsel clients without imposing their personal values,” he wrote in a portion of his ruling posted by The Detroit News. “In the case of Ms. Ward, the university determined that she would never change her behavior and would consistently refuse to counsel clients on matters with which she was personally opposed due to her religious beliefs – including homosexual relationships.”

Ward’s attorneys claim the university told her she would only be allowed to remain in the program if she went through a “remediation” program so that she could “see the error of her ways” and change her belief system about homosexuality.

The case is similar to a lawsuit the ADF filed against Augusta State University in Georgia. Counseling student Jennifer Keeton was allegedly told to stop sharing her Christian beliefs in order to graduate.

Stacy McCain contends, “Approval of homosexuality is therefore now compulsory in public universities. Christians pay taxes to support universities which forbid Christian students from expressing their beliefs.”

Ed Morrissey wonders,

Does this amount to a “thought police”?  A religious test for education?  Or does Keeton’s lack of diversity appreciation really make her unqualified for a degree and career in counseling?

It sounds to me like the ACA wants a “don’t ask, don’t tell” rule for religion.  That runs square into the First Amendment, especially for a state-run school.  The ACA’s idea of who comes first doesn’t get to trump the restriction on freedom of religious exercise.  If clients get off-put by Keeton’s approach to counseling, they can look for another counselor.  Now, the ACA can decide not to certify her; as a private organization, they have that prerogative.  If they do that explicitly based on her religious belief, however, they may have a problem with that in court, especially as it will block Keeton’s ability to make a living.

The state-run school has no such leeway.  They cannot impose a religious test for graduation, no matter how they dress it up.

This really isn’t complicated:  You’re allowed to believe whatever you wish.  Under the 1st Amendment, you’re allowed to say or write just about any damned fool thing you please without fear of sanction from your government.  You’re also allowed wide berth in the practice of your religious beliefs.

But public institutions are allowed to set policies that conflict with some people’s religious beliefs, so long as they have a rational, secular basis for doing so.   In this case, EMU did.  It would be simply absurd to allow students to participate in a program designed to provide counseling credentials who would never be able to get licensure as a counselor.

As Jesse Taylor puts it,

Professional certification guidelines are, generally, constitutional.  One of the requirements of the degree both the Georgia and Michigan students are pursuing is that they treat clients equally and respectfully, and don’t impose their personal beliefs on their clients.  It has nothing to do with religion and everything to do with the requirements of the job they voluntarily pursued.

Now, I suppose EMU could offer an academic program in counseling that doesn’t lead to licensure.  But that strikes me as a waste of resources; this is, after all, a vo-tech degree. Presumably, Ward would be welcome to pursue, say, a psychology degree?

UPDATE: Commenter Michael Reynolds offers an excellent analogy:

Let’s change a couple of the specifics: Kid is in the ROTC program. Decides to take that whole Sermon on the Mount thing seriously. Wants to finish ROTC despite the fact that his beliefs make it impossible for him to ever fight.

That person wouldn’t allowed to be in the ROTC Advanced Program, which leads to commissioning. They’d be perfectly welcome, though, to take Basic Program classes in first aid, rappelling, leadership, physical training, and whathaveyou.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Education, Law and the Courts, Religion, ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. JRog says:

    Are not doctors allowed to refuse certain patients on religious or moral grounds? She certainly did not impose her beliefs on her clients. It seems to me she did the honorable thing and avoided interaction with them at all. You don’t have to agree with her position on homosexuality, but it certainly shouldn’t cost her the right to an education from a school she paid taxes to establish.




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  2. Brian Lehman says:

    I was discussing this issue last night. The one thought I had is that she may be better served by a program that has an explicit religious backing. She clearly wants her counseling to be guided by her personal moral principles. But those same principles could cause an immense problem in a secular counseling context. I could foresee any number of ethical problems due to her flat-out refusing to counsel an entire segment of the population based on her own biases. She has the right to have said biases, but the college also has the right, in my view, to not qualify someone if they will not be able to pass professional ethical muster.




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  3. sam says:

    I think this gets at the heart of the matter:

    District Judge George Caram Steeh was not sympathetic to Ward, finding that the University has established curricular requirements needed to meet accreditation standards, and that courts have traditionally deferred to educational institutions on such curricular matters as long as the school’s rules are non-discriminatory in the sense that they apply to everyone and are not intended to discriminate on the basis of religion.

    “Counseling, by its very nature, relies on a uniquely personal and intimate relationship between the counselor and client to assist in delivering the objectives sought by the client,” he wrote. “Educating counselors to provide such services is clearly within the expertise of the universities that provide such programs. Plaintiff was taught the Code of Ethics in class, and cannot claim that she was unaware of its requirements. Her papers demonstrate she struggled with the issue of referral due to value conflicts, particularly when the value conflicts were due to her religious beliefs. She knew the University’s curricular goal of teaching students to counsel without imposing their personal values on their clients by setting up boundaries so as not to be judgmental.”

    In other words, in counseling, it’s all about the client, not the counselor, and the counselor is expected to set aside any personal agenda in helping the client deal with the client’s issues. [My emphasis] Ward was unable to do that with an entire category of clients, defined by a characteristic specified in the ethical code – sexual orientation- and the court was unwilling to compel the University to allow her to complete the program without having acquired that essential skill of a professional counselor. http://newyorklawschool.typepad.com/leonardlink/2010/07/another-front-in-the-culture-wars-federal-court-says-christian-grad-student-must-provide-comply-with.html




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  4. sam says:

    Oh, and her Christianity is a religious herring. The policy would apply to anyone, of any religious or nonreligious persuasion who, on the basis of that persuasion, refused to counsel homosexuals. In which case the Fox news headline, and the basis of the ensuing right-wing blogathon, would be: Student Expelled for Refusing to Counsel Homosexuals on Moral Grounds




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  5. Brummagem Joe says:

    Another faux outrage from the usual source. They bore me to death and I doubt they are of interest to anyone outside of the whacko tendency.




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  6. Herb says:

    “it certainly shouldn’t cost her the right to an education from a school she paid taxes to establish.”

    I don’t think this lady was denied the right to an education…..she was denied a degree in a program whose requirements she did not fulfill. That’s how it should be.




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  7. Franklin says:

    “she refused to counsel homosexual clients”

    For me, that’s the key phrase. A school counselor who refuses to see some of her clients? It doesn’t even make sense. How could any school hire her? Or is there some sort of ‘straights only’ school that I don’t know about?




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  8. Franklin says:

    Are not doctors allowed to refuse certain patients on religious or moral grounds?

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe the answer is NO. Not sure if this is in their Oath, but I’m pretty sure that there have been Supreme Court rulings covering this exact question.




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  9. Michael Reynolds says:

    Let’s change a couple of the specifics:

    Kid is in the ROTC program. Decides to take that whole Sermon on the Mount thing seriously. Wants to finish ROTC despite the fact that his beliefs make it impossible for him to ever fight.




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  10. TangoMan says:

    She was removed from the school’s counseling program last year because she refused to counsel homosexual clients.

    Let’s put this “take all comers policy” to the test. As part of accreditation let’s force rape victims to counsel rapists, let’s force child abuse victims to counsel child abusers, let’s force the victims of racial violence to counsel their tormentors, etc. and in no case shall the counselor hint that they have an opinion or reached a judgment on the issue of the lifestyle issue of their client.

    If the counseling client must always come first and we pretend that there isn’t a marketplace for counselors, a marketplace that can allow counselors and clients to seek out the best fit for a counseling relationship, then counseling aspirants would have no grounds to refuse to counsel those clients who they prefer not to counsel.




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  11. James Joyner says:

    Kid is in the ROTC program. Decides to take that whole Sermon on the Mount thing seriously. Wants to finish ROTC despite the fact that his beliefs make it impossible for him to ever fight.

    Right. That person wouldn’t allowed to be in the ROTC Advanced Program, which leads to commissioning. They’d be perfectly welcome, though, to take Basic Program classes in first aid, rappelling, leadership, physical training, and whathaveyou.




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  12. datechguy says:

    I think you are missing the point here. It was her action (refusing to treat the patient) that gave the University cause. The University’s attempt to modify her beliefs are clearly unconstitutional as are the speech codes involved, but her act, not any kind of standards that impose a religious test gave the university the ammo they needed to win.




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  13. Franklin says:

    Let’s put this “take all comers policy” to the test. As part of accreditation let’s force rape victims to counsel rapists, let’s force child abuse victims to counsel child abusers, let’s force the victims of racial violence to counsel their tormentors, etc.

    TangoMan, this ‘analogy’ may be the worst analogy ever. First problem: Where does it say that she had been the ‘victim’ of gay sex? The second problem: When does a school counselor deal with rapists, child abusers, and violent racial tormentors, all of whom should be behind bars, not in school?




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  14. floyd says:

    When the farce of inclusion and diversity run up against the agenda, the result is gross hypocrisy.
    The systems of coercion and domination will once again prevail, even though wielded by the self styled, self righteous, “enlightened”, instruments of iconoclasm.
    Believe what you choose as long as you choose to believe what you’re told…
    Once again 2+2=5 , or else! [LOL]

    Brian…. Separate but equal??




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  15. Franklin says:

    So on my lunchbreak, I honestly tried to see the point of view of those outraged. But I’m having a hard time here.

    If you think homosexuality is something you are born with, then this case is the same as a counselor who refuses to see black people. I’m sure TangoMan will have a defense of such a counselor, but no rational conservative will.

    If you think homosexuality is an immoral choice, then this case is the same as a counselor who refuses to see drug users. What’s the point of a counselor who refuses to see drug users? It seems like that’s the sort of person who needs counseling!




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  16. Franklin says:

    floyd-

    I’m sure you’re smart in real life. Can you provide some sort of rationale for a counselor who refuses to see clients? Thanks in advance.




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  17. tylerh says:

    tangoman wrote as part of accreditation let’s force rape victims to counsel rapists, let’s force child abuse victims to counsel child abusers, let’s force the victims of racial violence to counsel their tormentors, etc.

    Counseling professionals do precisely this every day. Most have the professional capacity to handle the situation. When the situation is too much for the counselor, which also happens regularly, counselors have a well-established professional tool: referral.

    They don’t say “you violate my morality and I refuse to treat you.” They help transition the patient to a more appropriate counselor. This is how many pro-life doctors handle abortion requests, for example.




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  18. PD Shaw says:

    Franklin, my wife is a licensed therapist and regularly declines to see clients that she does not feel that she is a good fit for. It’s not an “all comers” situation. She’ll refer them to someone else. It’s not as if it’s emergency services.

    Counseling may be different, but there is a wide variety of types of counselors from glancing at the ACA website. It seems odd that this program focuses on school counseling, but why couldn’t she be a school counselor at a religious school that shares her views?




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  19. steve says:

    Physicians are generally required to treat emergency patients regardless of religious belief. Elective care is a bit different. If it is a current patient and you discover something objectionable, you are expected to treat until another physician is found. You are allowed, in most cases to not accept new patients on moral grounds. Most docs are in groups and the group will usually handle this internally.

    Steve




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  20. floyd says:

    “””If you think homosexuality is an immoral choice, then this case is the “same” as a counselor who refuses to see drug users. What’s the point of a counselor who refuses to see drug users? It seems like that’s the sort of person who needs counseling!”””

    Franklin;
    Let’s use your example…. In a School counseling setting…. What should you do?Advise the drug user to continue his lifestye and maybe , since he has the interest….. pursue a career as a pharmacist?

    You see the dilemma? Should you do this[if it were policy] in spite of your deeply held beliefs that the drug use in question would be harmful.

    Whether you approve of my response is not germane.It is “some sort of rationale”.
    A refusal to see a client in this setting would clearly be justified unless the subject of drug use were allowed to be ignored and the counseling be limited to the balance of pertinent subject matter, otherwise , the counselor’s education would amount only to indoctrination.




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  21. Franklin says:

    OK, I get my picture of school counseling from my own experience. In short, there was only one counselor at our school per grade level, and that was a very big (1500+ student) school. I could easily imagine one counselor in smaller schools or more rural places, where there’s no easy way to do a referral.

    Floyd- I think I see your point here. I’ve been hung up on the part where she refused to see some clients at all (whether that’s an accurate description, I don’t know), but if we move on and pretend she has met with such a client, what would she say of behavior she disapproves of?

    I’m not a counselor, but I’d imagine they disapprove of a lot of things their clients are doing (for example, underage sex). How do they normally deal with it? I’d expect that in the underage sex case, they lay out the risks and so forth. So is the main issue here that ACA prohibits counseling against homosexuality?




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  22. PD Shaw says:

    I had a problem with this issue when it came up about 10 years ago when the Illinois Bar refused to give a law license Matt Hale, the leader of a white-supremacist organization. He had received his law degree, passed the exams, both ethical and substantive, but the attorney that interviewed him recommended denial, which was upheld by the Board and the courts. While Hale said he would accept non-white clients (a superfluous gesture if there is one), he was told that lawyers needed to believe that everyone is equal before the law. Hale believed he was merely advancing the interest of the white race like the NAACP does for theirs.

    As vile as he was, I think Hale should have been given his license. I don’t think he was much danger of having a law practice. I’m uncomfortable with morals clauses for licenses in general.




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  23. Maggie Mama says:

    Every place the word “Christian” is used both in the above post and ensuing comments let’s replace it with the word “Muslim” and see where the discussion takes us.




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  24. Franklin says:

    PD Shaw-

    An interesting case, to be sure. What if Hale was instead an ER physician? Oh, sure, he’d vow to help non-whites, but would you be happy as a black guy if he was the only one who could save your life?

    I’m just asking whether your opinion is an absolute or one of weighing the pros & cons. A life and death situation is obviously much different than a lawyer poorly representing you in court, or a counselor telling you that you’re a bit too fabulous for her.

    I can more clearly see your point-of-view, though. My opinion of the case above is still colored by my picture of what school counselors do.




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  25. floyd says:

    Maggie Mama;
    Every coward in the country wants to do just that, because they know two things…
    1] It’s not a fair comparison.
    2] they don’t have to fear retaliation.




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  26. PD Shaw says:

    Franklin, I think doctors should accept all comers, particularly in the ER.




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  27. Janis Gore says:

    Getting back to journalism, which I know a little (emphasize little) about) what are the larger factors in the story?

    What does a graduate degree in “school counseling” qualify you for ? I don’t know. Do you refer? Do you try to tamp down what’s happening in your school?

    I think we’re talking about a fear of bullying in the younger grades. Do you, Mr. Phillips, think a young homosexual should be bullied to death? One of the pink-cheeked boys in my high school was found hanging on a door in about 1973. I was surprised. He was 17, as I remember.




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  28. Juneau says:

    Another faux outrage from the usual source. They bore me to death and I doubt they are of interest to anyone outside of the whacko tendency.

    Outright discrimination on religious grounds and you see nothing wrong with because – let’s face it – it’s against a Christian and not some other religion.

    You are, without a doubt, one of the most devious, two-faced, hypocritical people I have had the pleasure to be exposed to.




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  29. Janis Gore says:

    Who are you talking to, Juneau?




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