Upholding Religious Freedom in the Classroom

Wendy Kaminer has an important post at The Atlantic asking why free speech organizations—with the notable exception of FIRE—aren’t doing much of anything to stand up for the rights of students and educators punished for their opposition to issues associated with gay rights. Regarding the treatment of students, I fully agree with Kaminer. But should we evaluate policies toward students and teachers through different standards?

Kaminer first example—that of Eastern Michigan student Julea Ward—is especially egregious. Ward, enrolled in EMU’s counseling graduate program, had a religious objection to homosexuality. She didn’t force her agenda on others, and instead asked permission to refer gay clients to other counselors. While hardly an ideal solution on a broad scale, this approach reasonably accommodated both the student’s religious beliefs and the patient’s right to fair treatment.

In response, EMU ordered Ward into a “remediation” program so she could recognize the “error of her ways”; when she declined to do so, she was terminated from the program. EMU defended its action on the grounds that “we are a diverse campus with a strong commitment not to discriminate on the basis of gender, race, disability, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression.” How its treatment of Ward reflected a desire not to discriminate against students on the basis of religion EMU didn’t say.

Ward’s experience mirrors that of the students victimized by NCATE’s “dispositions” criteria. In both instances, faculty ideologues used “professional” guidelines to force out students whose beliefs (such as opposition to affirmative action) the professors found objectionable—and in the process to deny those students their preferred career choice.

A high-profile case involving a Christian student group reflects a similarly extreme application of “diversity” principles: Hastings Law School’s Christian Legal Society was forbidden official recognition after it refused the school’s demand to accept as members all students, even those who disagreed with its religious mission (which included, among other things, a belief in the immorality of homosexual behavior). Hastings, with backing from the higher education establishment, deemed the CLS response a violation of the school’s non-discrimination policy against gays and lesbians. In a major defeat for a 1st amendment right to freedom of association, the 9th Circuit upheld the decision, though, as Kaminer predicts, the Supreme Court likely will overturn the decision.

It’s possible, of course, to see a theoretical argument for Hastings’ position: that university-funded student groups shouldn’t exclude people on the basis of sexual orientation. But religious students surely have a right to freedom of association as well; pro-gay student organizations exist at Hastings; and it’s hard to believe that gay and lesbian students would have been breaking the door in any case to join the CLS. So any harm to Hastings’ gay and lesbian students would have been minimal, especially when compared to the clear harm of denying the CLS students’ right to free association. But instead of finessing the issue, Hastings stood by its inflexible interpretation of the law—even to the point of forcing the matter into court, where the outcome likely will set a bad precedent from the law school’s point of view.

In both the Ward and CLS cases, religious students were punished for their beliefs, even though accommodating the affected students would have yielded scant, if any, harm to other students. Neither of those conditions, however, apply to the activities of Donald Mendell regarding Question 1, a peoples’ veto measure that stripped from Maine’s gay and lesbian citizens the right to civil marriage. (Disclosure: I voted against Question 1, and I donated to the No on 1 campaign.) A claim that marriage equality would affect public education formed the major argument of the Yes on 1 side, including in a TV ad from Mendell, a guidance counselor at Nokomis High School in Newport. (In his ad, Mendell proclaimed, “Vote yes on Question 1 to prevent homosexual marriage from being pushed on Maine students.”) In response, another Maine guidance counselor filed a complaint against him, on the grounds that his statements violated (extremely vague) anti-discrimination standards laid down by the National Association of Social Workers—an organization hardly known for its ideological diversity.

The complaint was politically foolish, since it provided a distraction in the closing days of the campaign. But was it without merit? Kaminer says yes: “The targeting of Julea Ward and Donald Mendell reflects a tendency to confuse speech or belief with conduct and to seek reprisals against people or groups whose views are equated with actual discrimination. But equating speech with action is also a semantic dodge for people who prefer not acknowledging (even to themselves) that they support censorship and restraints on freedom of conscience. In the Ward and Mendell cases, ‘complainants are wielding the canons of professional ethics as if they were blasphemy codes for the state church and you have to punish these people as heretics’ Alliance Defense Fund attorney Jordon Lorence asserts. ‘Who’s being the narrow minded fundamentalist and who’s being the civil libertarian in these discussions?'”

But the case of a student victimized by intolerant professors differs substantially from that of a public school guidance counselor with a professional obligation to work with all students in his school. In considering the point, set aside Mendell’s misrepresentation of the educational law under which he supposedly teaches (unlike California, Maine state law contains no reference to the teaching of marriage in the public schools, and so the outcome of Question 1 did not affect, one way or the other, what Maine students are taught about marriage). And set aside Mendell’s myriad statements (marriage equality would “ridicule tradition and belief in natural law”; marriage equality is “a change that strikes to the heart of the Sacraments,” and not something that “our Lord would support”) that even the ADF might concede personified a “narrow minded fundamentalis[m].”

It’s not possible to set aside, however, Mendell’s advancing his political agenda by exploiting students that he had (allegedly) counseled. The Bangor Daily News reported that Mendell “said he chose to involve himself in the ‘Yes on 1’ campaign because in 36 years of counseling, he has seen the stress having homosexual parents can cause for adolescents. ‘My business has been to do the best I can to help mitigate difficult situations and help them develop and grow despite hardships,’ said Mendell. ‘To have those hardships codified into law is wrong, in my opinion.’ . . . Mendell said he values equality too, but his definition of the word in this context is that ‘all children should have an equal right to having a mother and a father.'”

Mendell, in short, took the ethically dubious course of publicly discussing, in a political campaign, his professional experience, with students, as a guidance counselor. Newport’s a small town (around 3000 people). The number of gay or lesbian parents is surely small, so locals would likely have a clear sense of exactly which students Mendell was referencing when he said students with gay or lesbian parents came to him with “difficult situations.” In light of these remarks, it’s inconceivable that the Nokomis School District any longer could allow Mendell to counsel the children of gay or lesbian parents (or, likely, any gay or lesbian students at the school). As Kaminer concedes, “it is not the prerogative of the state to withhold or withdraw licenses from people on the basis of their religious beliefs, except in extraordinary cases, for compelling reasons: a teacher whose religious beliefs prevent her from teaching girls or gay students or ethnic minorities should not be licensed to teach in public schools.” A guidance counselor who publicly describes the parents of some of his students as “hardships” that he works with the students to “mitigate” solely on the basis of the parents’ sexual orientation should be nowhere near a public school’s counselor’s office.

Donald Mendell, in short, is no Julea Ward. Those concerned when members of the academy’s far left (the Group of 88 in the lacrosse came comes to mind) exploit their students to advance campus or ideological agendas should be equally concerned with Mendell’s behavior.

KC Johnson

KC Johnson is a history professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author, along with Stuart Taylor, of The Campus Rape Frenzy: The Attack on Due Process at America's Universities.

2 thoughts on “Upholding Religious Freedom in the Classroom

  1. But if Donald Mendell had used his counseling experience to support some politically-correct policy, there would have been no problem.
    If he had said that parents who smoke, or who own guns are a source of difficulty for kids, nobody would have raised an eyebrow.
    Rather he, based on his counseling experience, came to a politically incorrect conclusion.
    Although the little politically-biased cottage industry that researches the effects of having gay or lesbian parents would disagree, the presumption has to be that the natural pattern — both a male and a female role model and care giver in the house — is best.
    It’s one thing to disagree with that, but it’s another thing to want to punish people who assert that.

  2. KC notes the increasing habit of equating speech with action.
    People, particularly in universities, regularly refer to criticism now as an “attack” or “assault”, and equate the emotional pain of having to listen to “intolerant discourse” with physical pain. Institutions that are free from such intolerant speech are referred to as “safe places”.
    I agree with KC that this represents an attempt to erode our commitment to free speech.

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