Appeals Court: Schools Can Punish Applicants Who Talk About God in Interview July 10, 2017

Appeals Court: Schools Can Punish Applicants Who Talk About God in Interview

Stick with me here, because this story is all sorts of confusing. It involves two Christians suing a school over claims of discrimination. One case was resolved last year. The other just got decided a few days ago. And even though the Religious Right will claim otherwise, neither of those students had a good argument.


In April of 2013, a Christian student named Brandon Jenkins applied to get into a Radiation Therapy program at the Community College of Baltimore County. The program was competitive, with only a handful of students (a few dozen) making it to the interview stage and only about 15 getting selected. Jenkins was chosen for the interview, but he didn’t make the cut after that.

There were good reasons he didn’t make it. His 3.2 GPA was okay, but not stellar. He told the interviewers that he preferred to stay in Maryland after graduating, a state where jobs in the field were relatively scarce. He had a decade-old criminal charge on his record.

The Christian Right, however, pointed to another issue as the reason for his rejection.

… during the interview, the panelists asked Mr. Jenkins the broad question, “What is the most important thing to you?” Mr. Jenkins simply answered, “My God.”

The program director later told Jenkins in an email: “I understand that religion is a major part of your life and that was evident in your recommendation letters, however, this field is not the place for religion.”

That sounds pretty damning — a real example of anti-Christian discrimination — until you understand the context of that question and answer.

They weren’t actually asking him about the most important thing in his life. (That would be an unusual question in an interview like that.) What they were really getting at was “Why do you want to become a radiation therapist? What’s the most important reason?” That’s why Jenkins’ response of “My God” was a problem.

In a sense, Jenkins couldn’t articulate an actual reason for wanting to go into the profession. It was no different from someone saying, “My parents told me to apply.” If your best reason for applying to a program is that someone else told you to do it — even if it’s God — you don’t deserve the seat.

The American Center for Law and Justice, the Christian advocacy group run by Donald Trump‘s latest lawyer Jay Sekulow, filed a lawsuit against the school at the time — and they eventually settled the case last year. The details were kept private.

While all that was going on, the ACLJ was bringing forth another case against the same school for virtually the same reason.

This time, a student named Dustin Buxton had also applied to the program, made it to the interview phase, and was rejected.

And again, there were a lot of reasons for this. When ranked, his writing sample tied for 36th out of the 44 people selected for an interview. His GPA was 21st out of 44. His observation day score (where he shadowed professionals and they graded him) was 35th. And his interview ranked 33rd.

We’re not talking about a strong candidate here.

But the ACLJ jumped on what Program Director Adrienne Dougherty wrote in her notes for why he was rejected:

He also brought up religion a great deal during the interview. Yes, this is a field that involves death and dying; but religion cannot be brought up in the clinic by therapist [sic] or students.

That was in 2013. In 2014, Buxton applied again. This time, he didn’t even receive an interview.

Naturally, the ACLJ claimed that this was all just anti-Christian discrimination. But a District Judge eventually dismissed those claims.

The ACLJ appealed the ruling, and the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals said on Friday that the judge was right. This was not discrimination at all.

If that’s the case, then why did the panelists complain about Buxton bringing up his religion? Simple. It was

Using the topics someone chooses to bring up in a conversation is a perfectly secular — and perfectly reasonable — metric for determining that person’s awareness of social norms. Whether an individual brings up religion, politics, their sex life, or their love of the New York Yankees, the topics broached by an interviewee are fair, secular metrics for determining that person’s interpersonal skills. The substance of the topic is not directly relevant; rather, it is the fact that they brought up the topic at all that serves as a basis for the determination.

In other words, no one cared that he was a Christian. But if he kept bringing up religion whenever they asked him general questions, it suggested he would do the same with patients, which was absolutely out of the question. Buxton was like an evangelist who managed to stick Jesus into everything.

The judges went on to say:

Simply put, it was not Buxton’s religious belief that caused his low interview score, but rather his choice of topic in the interview room that informed the committee’s determination that he lacked interpersonal skills.

the Free Speech Clause does not protect speech expressed in an admissions interview from admissions consequences in a competitive process. Although Buxton argues that this conclusion will open the door to a wide range of discrimination against applicants for government programs or jobs, this fear is misplaced. That the Free Speech Clause is not implicated in this narrow context does not open the door to a parade of discriminatory horribles. Several constitutional protections against discrimination remain in full force even in a competitive application and interview process; the Free Speech Clause is simply not one of them.

The school, in both cases, didn’t do anything wrong. They looked at these students carefully and concluded that there were better candidates out there. It’s entirely possible that the 15-or-so students they chose in 2013 and 2014 were Christians themselves. But those students didn’t feel the need to proselytize at every turn, had solid reasons for wanting to become therapists, and had stronger academic credentials.

It’s about damn time this case came to an end.

The ACLJ hasn’t announced if it’ll appeal this ruling, but when a District Judge says you’re wrong, and a unanimous three-judge Appeals Court panel says you’re wrong, it’s hard to imagine the full Fourth Circuit or the Supreme Court would find brand new interpretations of the law to rule differently.

These cases are clear-cut. The students just weren’t good enough to get into the program. Instead of suing, they would’ve been better off studying more and learning how to better interact with other people.

(via Religion Clause. Image via Shutterstock. Portions of this article were published earlier)

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