The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals is being asked to reverse an allegedly “erroneous” decision of a district court that ruled that one’s faith can disqualify a student from being admitted into college.
Dustin Buxton was denied a spot in the Radiation Therapy Program at the Community College of Baltimore County (CCBC) ultimately because he divulged too much about his personally held Christian beliefs by the school’s program director – when asked.
Drop your religion at the door
CCBC Program Director Dr. Adrienne Dougherty has made it a practice to penalize students’ admission scores and deny them admission because they express their devout Christian faith during admission interviews.
“[The applicant] brought up religion a great deal during the interview,” Dougherty expressed, according to the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), which is representing Buxton in the lawsuit. “[The radiation therapy field] is not the place for religion.”
In the 2013 and 2014 academic years, Buxton applied to enroll in CCBC’s Radiation Therapy Program with academic marks that should have made him a shoe-in, but he bumped into an un-scalable wall when his religious beliefs became an issue in the admission process.
“While he surpassed the standards of a competitive candidate both years, made the Dean’s List in 2013, and even raised his GPA for the 2014 application process, Dustin was nonetheless denied admission to each application,” ACLJ’s Carly F. Gammill recounted. “In fact, in the 2014 admission cycle, Dustin was not even granted an interview – as he had been in 2013.”
The unsurmountable obstacle was encountered when he answered loaded questions asked by the CCBC interview panel in 2013.
“What do you base your morals on?” Dustin was asked.
After the Christian applicant answered, “My faith,” his Christian beliefs were not mentioned any further.
After his panel exchange, Dougherty produced a written review of Baxter’s interview, explaining why he lost points.
“[Dustin] brought up religion a great deal during the interview,” she wrote in the review. “Yes, this is a field that involves death and dying; but religion cannot be brought up in the clinic by therapist or students.”
Dougherty also maintained that because some patients who are treated are not Christian – while others are atheists – Baxter is not welcome in the program … because his faith does not fit in.
“We have many patients who come to us for treatment from many different religions, and some who believe in nothing at all,” the director expressed to Baxter, according to ChristianNews.net.
She also gave him some advice about how to conduct himself if he wanted to be accepted to a program down the road in his career.
“If you interview in the future, you may want to leave your thoughts and beliefs out of the interview process,” Dougherty suggested.”
Shooting holes in the interview process
ACLJ argues that Dougherty has little understanding of student’s constitutional rights when applying for her college’s programs.
“Because the Program Director was apparently unaware of the foundational constitutional principles prohibiting religious discrimination by government entities, and the lower court failed to properly apply them, we were compelled to present the case to the appellate court, seeking reversal of the dangerous precedent established by the district court’s opinion,” Gammill pointed out.
A number of key factors went into the appellant’s argument, amounting to unlawful discrimination against the student based on his sincerely held religious beliefs.
“We identified the numerous errors committed by the district court that run directly counter to Supreme Court precedent, including the conclusions that (1) private religious speech enjoys no constitutional protection in a selective admissions process; (2) public educational institutions are constitutionally permitted to base admissions decisions on an applicant’s expression of a religious viewpoint, without any need for a court to analyze whether such consideration by the government either (a) is rationally related to a legitimate governmental goal or (b) evidences hostility, or animus, toward that protected viewpoint; and (3) the Program Director’s decision to penalize Mr. Buxton and other applicants she deems ‘too religious’ – based on an unfounded assumption that an applicant’s religious expression, offered in honest response to a personal question posed by the government itself, necessarily means that individual would improperly impose his or her beliefs on patients in a clinical setting – satisfies the requirements of the Establishment Clause (i.e., has a primary secular purpose, does not inhibit religion, and does not excessively entangle the government in matters of religion),” Gammill noted from ACLJ’s case presented before the Fourth Circuit.
According to ACLJ, the district court got it all wrong when coming up with its earlier decision against Baxter.
“Because Mr. Buxton’s free speech claim was dismissed based on the lower court’s legal conclusions concerning the allegations in the Complaint, rather than on the evidence, we asked the appellate court to reverse the district court’s erroneous decision and send that claim back for further factual development,” Gimmell continued. “As we explained, because the law is on Mr. Buxton’s side, and he sufficiently pleaded a free speech claim, he should have the opportunity to present his substantial supporting evidence on this issue to the court below.”
It was also argued in the suit that the selection (or deletion) process used by CCBC allows school officials to ban anyone from enrollment who displays or reveals their adherence to religious convictions of any type.
“We also asked the Fourth Circuit to remand the Establishment Clause claim in light of the clear evidence demonstrating the Program Director’s bias against applicants who are not merely religious, but whose faith actually informs the way they live their lives,” Gimmill shared. “The district court’s rulings, we argued, if permitted to stand, would effectively grant public educational institutions full license to eliminate religious adherents from all manner of programs of study in this country. This is not – and cannot be – the law.”
Not the only one
Another student denied access to CCBC’s Radiation Therapy Program was Brandon Jenkins, who was also punished for candidly answering a question about his faith in God.
“Brandon was denied admission because when asked in an admissions interview what was the most important thing in his life, he replied simply, ‘My God,’” RedState.com reported in July 2015.
True to form, Dougherty rejected Jenkins’ application and delivered Jenkins a similar message about his faith – and how it did not jive with campus politics.
“I understand that religion is a major part of your life … however, this field is not the place for religion,” Dougherty expressed, according to RedState.com. “If you interview in the future, you may want to leave your thoughts and beliefs out of the interview process.”
Dougherty’s advice about hiding one’s faith – or lying about it – was supported by CCBC officials when Jenkins questioned the director’s rejection to his application.
“The college unapologetically doubled down on this sentiment, stating that Dr. Dougherty’s statement ‘is not bad advice,’ and that students, when interviewing for secular positions, would be better advised to ‘have a concrete reason for wanting to undertake the training at hand than to say only that God directed one to do it,’” RedState.com’s Matthew Clark recounted. “This situation is almost unbelievable, but unfortunately, Brandon isn’t alone.”
Buxton’s case should be decided by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals within the next few months.