Tensions Between Rights of Conscience and Civil Rights

Source Organization: Pew Research Center

06/03/2010 - Should doctors, pharmacists and other health care workers have the right to refuse to provide services that conflict with their religious beliefs? Until recently, the debate over “conscience protections” for health care workers centered largely on abortion and birth control. But in the past few years, new cases have emerged that have expanded the debate and raised questions about the tensions between individuals’ rights of conscience and the need to protect certain groups against discrimination, notably gays and lesbians. These new cases involve health care workers – in one case doctors at a California fertility clinic, in another case a graduate student in Michigan studying to become a counselor – who refused to treat gay and lesbian patients because they felt that doing so would compromise their core religious beliefs. While religious organizations and institutions are exempt from certain nondiscrimination laws, there is debate over whether private individuals and businesses should have similar rights. To explore this issue, the Pew Forum turned to Professors Ira “Chip” Lupu and Robert Tuttle.

Ira “Chip” Lupu, F. Elwood and Eleanor Davis Professor of Law, The George Washington University Law School

Robert W. Tuttle, David R. and Sherry Kirschner Berz Research Professor of Law and Religion, The George Washington University Law School

David Masci, Senior Research Fellow, Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life

Briefly, describe the Michigan case, Ward v. Eastern Michigan University. What led to the lawsuit and what are the key legal issues involved?

In March 2009, Julea Ward, a student at Eastern Michigan University (EMU), was dismissed from her graduate-level counseling program when she refused to counsel a gay man about a same-sex relationship. The program, run by the University’s Department of Counseling and Education, aims to give students real world experience by requiring them to counsel several clients, who pay a small fee, over the course of a semester. After reading this client’s file, Ward asked a supervisor to refer him to another student counselor and to assign her another client. In making this request, Ward stated that her Christian beliefs about homosexuality would prevent her from affirming the client’s relationship with another man. The supervisor claimed that Ward’s refusal violated the ethical obligations of a counselor not to discriminate against clients based on sexual orientation or to impose one’s personal beliefs on clients. Based on this judgment, the school expelled Ward from the counseling program.

Ward filed suit in federal district court in the Eastern District of Michigan, alleging that the school violated her constitutional rights to free exercise of religion and freedom of speech. In particular, she argued that she had been expelled because the supervisor objected to her religious beliefs about homosexuality. EMU, citing the Supreme Court’s decision in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier (1988), as well as several lower court decisions in which courts had shown deference to academic officials in disputes involving educational issues, asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit. Ward claimed, however, that the school’s rationale for her dismissal was merely a pretext for the faculty’s hostility to her religious beliefs about homosexuality, which she had expressed in class as well as to her supervisor. In addition, she argued that counselors do not have a professional obligation to counsel all clients about all issues. Instead, she said, they are permitted to refer clients to other counselors if a client’s needs conflict with the counselor’s moral convictions.

In March 2010, the court rejected the school’s motion to dismiss the case. The lawsuit will now go forward in district court, focusing on whether EMU’s expulsion of Ward arose from its application of a reasonable school policy or from hostility toward Ward’s religious beliefs.

Read the full interview, Tensions Between Rights of Conscience and Civil Rights, on the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life Web site.

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