As part of our work, the ACLJ works to protect the constitutional rights of students who attend public colleges and universities. I want to share this encouraging victory with you concerning a student we represent in Virginia.
Cory attends a public college in Virginia and received two failing grades during a psychiatric clinical rotation due to viewpoints he expressed during class discussion about the appropriate role of religion in nursing practice. Cory was also required to sign a student remediation plan designed to convince him to change his viewpoint.
We sent an academic appeal letter to the Dean of the
Earlier in the semester, during discussions with his professor and his classmates, Cory stated his personal viewpoint that the discussion of religion or spirituality can be an effective part of addiction recovery. For example, Cory stated that he thought that spirituality was a very important part of the addiction counseling process in programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous.
The professor advised Cory that the hospital that hosted the program wanted nursing students to refer spiritual matters to a chaplain instead of discussing matters of faith with patients. Cory stated that he understood that policy and emphasized that he had not actually discussed religion or spirituality with patients during the program. He simply stated his personal belief, in a classroom setting, that such discussion is not categorically unprofessional in all contexts.
The following week, Cory learned that he had been given an Unsatisfactory grade for the previous week because, in his professors view, it was unprofessional to believe that it would be acceptable for nurses or nursing students to discuss matters of faith with patients in some circumstances. In further conversations with the professor and a program director, Cory was told that the separation of church and state prohibits any discussion of religion at a public hospital or in a program run by a public college.
After receiving a second Unsatisfactory grade for the same reason, Cory met with the professor and an assistant dean who told him that he was earning failing grades due to his unprofessional beliefs. At the meeting, Cory was required to sign a student remediation plan designed to reinforce the view that the discussion of religion and spirituality with patients is inappropriate in the clinical setting.
We filed an academic appeal with the Dean of the
The appeal letter explained that there is a larger debate within the nursing profession regarding the appropriate means of incorporating religion and spirituality into nursing practice. The First Amendmentand [the colleges] interest in preparing students to be informed members of the nursing professiondictate that Cory must be permitted to engage in this debate in a respectful manner without being penalized for his viewpoints. The appeal letter discussed numerous scholarly nursing articles in secular publications such as Rehabilitation Nursing, Research and Theory for Nursing Practice, Nursing Forum, and Nursing Times that have detailed the numerous beneficial health effects of prayer, religion, and spirituality.
In addition, the letter explained that the Supreme Court has noted that the First Amendment . . . does not tolerate laws that cast a pall of orthodoxy over the classroom. The vigilant protection of constitutional freedoms is nowhere more vital than in the community of American schools. The classroom is peculiarly the marketplace of ideas. Keyishian v. Bd. of Regents, 385
We received a response back from the Dean that provided the remedy that we had requested and stated that [s]tudents are certainly allowed to freely discuss their opinions and beliefs with fellow students, faculty and staff, in a respectful manner, and their ability to do so within appropriate parameters is important to maintaining a robust academic environment and a learning community that is consistent with [the colleges] values.
Cory was pleased with this result. This case is a reminder of the importance of protecting the freedom of speech on the campuses of public colleges and universities.