On January 27, 2012, the 6th Circuit issued a landmark opinion in Ward v. Wilbanks. It is the biggest federal court victory for campus First Amendment rights since my own victory before the 4th Circuit last April. What is striking about the Ward opinion is the thread of common sense running through every aspect of its analysis. Even more striking is the eloquence of the 6th Circuit as it defends fundamental religious freedom against a full-frontal assault from the LGBT community.
Julea Ward was one of many counseling students being coerced into affirming homosexuality by a state-run institution. She did not seek to force homosexuals to change their conduct through religious-based corrective therapy. She simply sought to refer homosexual clients to other counselors when those clients demanded affirmation of their conduct. Eastern Michigan University sought to force Julea into a cruel trilemma by accepting one of the following options:
1. Lie to clients by telling them she approved of their conduct, or
2. Abandon her religious beliefs regarding sexuality, or
3. Leave the counseling profession altogether.
Julea’s preference was pretty simple: refer homosexual (and some heterosexual) clients to others more willing to affirm their conduct. For this she was expelled from the counseling program. Then the trial court granted summary judgment preventing Julea from having her day in court.
Julea Ward appealed to the 6th Circuit and won a unanimous reversal. The judges concluded that a reasonable jury could have found that Ward’s professors ejected her from the counseling program because of their own personal hostility toward her speech and faith, rather than a policy against referrals. In other words, that was simply a pretext to punish her for her beliefs.
The 6th Circuit judges wondered out loud just what Julea Ward did wrong. She was willing to work with all clients and to respect the school’s affirmation directives in the process. That is precisely why she asked to refer gay and lesbian clients (and some heterosexual clients) – but only if the conversation required her to affirm their sexual practices. After noting her compliance with the rule, the 6th Circuit raised interesting hypothetical questions. For example, would the ban on discrimination against clients based on their religion require a Muslim counselor to tell a Jewish client that his religious beliefs are correct? Would it require an atheist counselor to tell a person of faith that there is a God?
After suggesting that the answer to both of those hypotheticals would be “no,” the 6th Circuit delivered a line certain to irreparably damage the self-esteem of the Eastern Michigan diversity crowd: “Tolerance is a two-way street. Otherwise, the rule mandates orthodoxy, not anti-discrimination.” In other words, the 6th Circuit accused the institution of promoting intolerance – the very thing it said it was committed to eradicating. Ouch.
The 6th Circuit also noted that many of the faculty members’ statements to Ward raise a similar concern about religious discrimination. They noted that 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 professional or educational objective. They added, “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.” Government taxation and regulation of religious beliefs is a serious accusation. Now, the issue will go to a jury.
One interesting aspect of the case is that the university did not even argue that its actions could withstand strict scrutiny. The 6th Circuit agreed adding “Whatever interest the university served by expelling Ward, it falls short of compelling. Allowing a referral would be in the best interest of Ward (who could counsel someone she is better able to assist) and the client (who would receive treatment from a counselor better suited to discuss his relationship issues).”
This is all just plain common sense. Everyone was fine except for a handful of professors with too much time on their hands and too little tolerance for the idea that someone, somewhere, somehow did not share their claimed commitment to moral relativism. Or course, Julea Ward’s professors really do not believe in moral relativism. They believe they are morally superior to Julea and have the authority to levy taxes on her “inferior” belief system.
For years, homosexuals have opposed the idea that they are sick, in need of change, and somehow capable of being cured by the counseling profession. Today, homosexuals promote the idea that Christians are sick, in need of change, and somehow capable of being cured by the counseling profession. Fortunately, the 6th Circuit is warding off their sanctimonious hypocrisy and narrow-minded assault on intellectual diversity.