A graduate student who sued Eastern Michigan University for expelling her from a psychology program will have her case heard in federal court, an appeals court ruled. Before her expulsion, Julea Ward had been giving counseling sessions as part of her psychology training. When assigned a gay patient, Ward asked for the patient to be referred to a different counselor, because her religious beliefs made her unwilling to affirm a gay lifestyle. But Ward’s adviser denied the referral, and Ward was eventually expelled.
The lawsuit alleges religious discrimination, because EMU’s psychology program mandates that psychology students must affirm the lifestyles of gay patients. The appeals court ruling makes it possible that Ward may prevail:
A unanimous decision for the appeals court, written by Judge Jeffrey S. Sutton, said that a jury might reasonably conclude that Eastern Michigan was using its policies as a pretext for discriminating against Ward for her religious views. Ward describes herself as an “orthodox Christian,” who believes that homosexuality is “morally wrong.” A significant part of her case is that she said that she would refer gay clients to other counselors, not seek to impose her views on them. She argues that this would not harm a client or force her to espouse things with which she does not believe. Ward argues as well that Eastern Michigan and others involved in training counselors in fact tolerate such “values-based” referrals. Eastern Michigan says that allowing someone to refer all members of a group to other counselors is a specific violation of the counseling association’s code of conduct, and that is why Ward was dismissed.
The appeals court decision notes the lack of a written university policy of “no referrals,” and says that this policy may have been an “after-the-fact invention” to justify religious discrimination. Further, the appeals court says that the hearing Eastern Michigan conducted on Ward was “not a model of dispassion,” and featured questions about her religious views with regard to gay people.
“Many of the faculty members’ statements to Ward raise a similar concern about religious discrimination. A reasonable jury could find that the university dismissed Ward from its counseling program because of her faith-based speech, not because of any legitimate pedagogical objective. A university cannot compel a student to alter or violate her belief systems based on a phantom policy as the price for obtaining a degree,” the decision says.
At the same time, however, the decision notes that “none of this means Ward should win as a matter of law.” The university may well be able to prove at trial that its no-referrals policy was not a pretext, but was a legitimate curricular decision (as the university maintains it was). “Just as the inferences favor Ward in the one setting, they favor the university defendants in the other. At this stage of the case and on this record, neither side deserves to win as a matter of law.”