6th Circuit: EMU student can sue for religious discrimination

Julea Ward, who was expelled from an Eastern Michigan University counseling program because she refused to counsel gays and lesbians about their lifestyles, can file a religious discrimination suit against the university, the Detroit Free Press reported.

In Ward v. Polite, et al., 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Jeffrey Sutton, joined by judges Julia Gibbons and John Adams, wrote that “Ward’s free speech claim deserves to go to a jury.”

“Although the university submits it dismissed Ward from the program because her request for a referral violated the [American Counseling Association] code of ethics, a reasonable jury could find otherwise — that the code of ethics contains no such bar and that the university deployed it as a pretext for punishing Ward’s religious views and speech.”

Judge George Steeh of U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan had ruled in favor of the university in 2010. The remanded case now goes back to him.

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Macomb County Nativity scene goes to court

“A manger scene on a road median in Warren is the focus of a court battle over religious freedoms,” according to a story in the Detroit News.

“John Satawa of Warren, who says his family has erected a Nativity scene in the Mound Road median since about 1945, filed a federal lawsuit Friday against the Road Commission of Macomb County for denying him permission to do so this year.

“Satawa’s lawsuit is backed by the Thomas More Law Center, an Ann Arbor-based law firm that promotes Christian heritage and values.

“County highway engineer Robert Hoepfner said in a March 9 letter to Satawa’s attorney that the commission denied Satawa’s request to place the Nativity scene in the median south of Chicago Road in Warren because the scene ‘clearly displays a religious message.'”

Mayor’s attorney rejects extensive allegations in suit

The Dearborn Press & Guide is reporting, “The mayor of Dearborn Heights continues to deny allegations made by a former employee who says he was dismissed from his role as director of the city’s Community & Economic Development Department because he is Arab American.

“The allegations are included in a complaint filed Oct. 2 in U.S. District Court on behalf of the employee, former CEDD Director Hassane Jamal. It claims the former department head was fired from his position on July 6, 2009, despite being ‘a member of a protected class with respect to age, race, national origin and religion.'”

Woman wouldn’t remove veil in court, evidence rule amendment considered

Ginnah Muhammad is a practicing Muslim who wears a hijab, a head scarf and veil that covers her entire head except for her eyes.

Her refusal to remove it to testify at her small-claims case against a car rental company has prompted the Michigan Supreme Court to consider a proposed amendment of MRE 611.

Muhammad rented a car from Enterprise Leasing. Enterprise charged her for damage to the car. Muhammad responded by filing a small-claims suit to get her money back.

Thirty-First District Court Judge Paul J. Paruk, sitting as the small-claims court, told Muhammad she had to remove the veil before she could testify. The judge said he needed to see her face so that he could better assess her credibility.

Muhammad balked. She told Paruk she would remove the veil only for a female judge.

Paruk dismissed her case without prejudice.

Enterprise, in the meantime, filed a small-claims suit against Muhammad. She removed it to the 31st District Court. This set up another confrontation with Paruk, who is that court’s only judge. Muhammad asked Paruk to recuse himself from the case. Paruk denied the request and awarded Enterprise $2,083 in damages. Muhammad’s appeal is pending in Wayne County Circuit Court.

But it’s not just about the two grand. Muhammad sued Paruk in federal district court. She alleged that Paruk’s insistence that she remove her veil violated her First Amendment right to free exercise of religion and denied her access to the court system. See, Muhammad v. Paruk, 553 F. Supp. 2d 893 (E.D. Mich. 2008).

U.S. District Court Judge John Feikins declined to exercise jurisdiction over the case. But in doing so, he noted that under Employment Division v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990), “the right to free exercise of religion does not relieve an individual of the obligation to comply with a valid and neutral law of general applicability.”

Feikins then explained why he wouldn’t hear the case:

[I]f Paruk has a valid, neutral and generally applicable policy of requiring witnesses to keep their faces visible while giving testimony, that policy would not violate Muhammad’s right to free exercise of her religion. Determining if Paruk has such a policy and, if he does, deciding whether it is valid, neutral and generally applicable would necessitate a detailed examination of how Paruk manages his court room as a state court judge. Conducting this type of review as a federal judge would undoubtably increase friction in the relationship between our state and federal courts. I find, therefore, that respect for the relationship between our state and federal courts weighs heavily against exercising jurisdiction over Muhammad’s declaratory judgment action for violation of her right to free exercise of her religion.

The proposed amendment of MRE 611 would give Michigan judges the framework to create the neutral policy Feikins mentioned:

(b) Appearance of Parties and Witnesses. The court shall exercise reasonable control over the appearance of parties and witnesses so as to (1) ensure that the demeanor of such persons may be observed and assessed by the fact-finder, and (2) to ensure the accurate identification of such persons.

A staff comment to the proposed amendment explains:

This proposed amendment would clarify that a judge is entitled to establish reasonable standards regarding the appearance of parties and witnesses to evaluate the demeanor of those individuals and to ensure accurate identification.

The court is accepting comments on the proposed amendment through April 1, 2009. Send them by e-mail to MSC_clerk@courts.mi.gov or by regular mail to Box 30052, Lansing, MI, 48909.