Alliance Defending Freedom recently settled the lawsuit it brought on behalf of Julea Ward against Eastern Michigan University. EMU expelled Julea--a stellar student with a 3.91 GPA who was nearly done with the program--for merely inquiring whether she should refer a client with whom she had a values conflict. The conflict arose because the client sought counseling about a sexual relationship that conflicted with her sincere religious convictions. As part of the settlement, the University agreed to pay Julea $75,000 and remove the expulsion from her student record.
The settlement is a great victory for Julea, as was the Sixth Circuit's earlier ruling in her case, in which it unanimously reversed a lower court order dismissing her lawsuit altogether.
The Sixth Circuit's ruling, which came down in January 2012, will have a lasting impact on the right of college students to live out their lives according to the dictates of their faith. It clearly sets out that public universities "cannot compel students to alter or violate their belief systems . . . as the price for obtaining a degree," which is precisely what EMU was demanding Julea do. Among other things, the university told Julea at her final disciplinary hearing that the "remediation" plan she had to complete to remain in the program was aimed at changing her "belief system."
The Court also established that public universities must apply their policies in a "faith-neutral" manner, and are forbidden from granting "secular exemptions but not religious ones.” Establishing this principle is especially important in the public university context, where Christian students are all too often singled out and punished for expressing or standing up for their faith.
Finally, the Sixth Circuit also highlighted the hypocrisy of public universities when they invoke "tolerance" and "diversity" to explain their punishment of students like Julea Ward. "Tolerance," the Court admonished "is a two-way street." But like EMU, universities all too often invoke policies regarding "tolerance," "diversity," or nondiscrimination, as the Court put it, to "mandate orthodoxy, not anti-discrimination." The Sixth Circuit is right, public universities must respect the beliefs and views of all their students, rather than favoring those with politically correct views and punishing the non-conformists. As Julea's case shows, to do otherwise could land universities in federal court.
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