Ward v. Polite (Ward v. Wilbanks)

Image: Ward v. Polite (Ward v. Wilbanks)

Julea Ward was kicked out of her Eastern Michigan University’s counseling program after she declined to counsel a student against her religious beliefs.  Ward lost in the lower courts but on January 27, 2012, the Sixth Circuit  issued a major victory for the constitutional rights of individuals with religious beliefs. The court held that Eastern Michigan University may have violated the Constitution by expelling a counseling student based on her religious beliefs about homosexual conduct.  The case was then remanded back to the district court.

On December 10, 2012, Eastern Michigan University quietly threw in the towel, settling its lawsuit. The University had expelled Ward from her graduate counseling degree program when she sought to use a patient referral mechanism that other student counselors were allowed to use. Her sin?  She wanted to refer patients for religious reasons: she did not feel that she could in good faith provide same-sex couples advice on their relationship because she believed those relationships to be sinful. The problem for the University was that it allowed student counselors for all sorts of reasons and Ward violated no written University policy; Ward was being targeted. The University’s punishment of Ward earned it a rebuke from the federal Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati, which held that the University was “permitting secular exemptions but not religious ones and failing to apply the policy in an even-handed, much less a faith-neutral, manner to Ward.” This reasoning followed the Becket Fund’s amicus brief filed in the appeal.

Ward v. Wilbanks is another example of government officials using the power they have to try to force a kind of ideological conformity onto those who dissent from academic pieties. The University’s decision to give up, pay Ward, and issue her a clean academic record indicates that the First Amendment is still a significant bulwark against the bureaucratic urge to squelch diversity of ideas. But it is a bulwark that still requires defenders.

The Becket Fund submitted a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, making arguments that the court ultimately adopted under the Free Exercise Clause. The Becket Fund also assisted with Ms. Ward’s primary brief.

*Photo Courtesy of ADF
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