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Woman discharged from graduate program because of religious beliefs can sue for damages

Julea Ward pursued a a graduate-level counseling degree from Eastern Michigan University.  Throughout the three-year program she maintained an outstanding grade point average, although she consistently raised concerns over the conflict between her individual religious beliefs and the counseling program's "values-affirming" approach to issues involving homosexuality and extra-marital sexual relationships.  During her final year she was assigned to counsel a gay patient and sought re-assignment of the patient to a counselor who did not share her religious objections.   The University responded to her request by instituting a disciplinary proceeding and, ultimately, discharging her from the program that she had nearly completed.  She sued, alleging a violation of civil rights.

The trial court granted the University summary disposition but the Sixth Circuit reversed and reinstated the case.  The judges emphasized that a university is granted "considerable flexibility in designing courses and policies and in enforcing them so long as they amount to reasonable means of furthering legitimate educational needs."  Nevertheless, they ruled that Ward had raised triable issues of fact with regard to whether her discharge from the program constituted an illegal form of discrimination and retaliation against her constitutionally-protected speech and faith.
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