A Missouri State University graduate has sued the school, claiming she was retaliated against because she refused to support gay adoption as part of a class project.
Emily Brooker’s federal lawsuit, filed on her behalf Monday by the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian legal group, claims the retaliation against her Christian beliefs violated her First Amendment right to free speech.
The lawsuit names the members of the university’s board of governors, university president Dr. Michael T. Nietzel and four faculty or administrators of the School of Social Work.
In the complaint, Brooker says she was accused of violating the school’s Standards of Essential Functioning in Social Work Education.
She says one of her professor’s, Dr. Frank G. Kauffman, accused her of the violation after he assigned a project that required the entire class to write and individually sign a letter to the Missouri Legislature in support of gay adoption. Brooker says her Christian beliefs required her to refuse to sign the letter.
The lawsuit is part of a growing trend of Christian students objecting to teachings in college classrooms that conflict with their beliefs, says David French, director of the ADF’s Center for Academic Freedom.
“The university is supposed to be the marketplace of ideas, and professors should be tolerant of the opinions of Christian students as well as those of non-Christian students,” he says.
The university said in a written statement that it would investigate the allegations and would comment after the investigation is complete.
“Missouri State University has been and is committed to protecting the rights of its students, as well as its faculty and staff, including free speech and expression, and freedom of religion,” the statement said.
Brooker says she was called before a college ethics committee on Dec. 16, where she was questioned for two hours by faculty members. She alleges they asked her questions such as “Do you think gays and lesbians are sinners?” and “Do you think I am a sinner?” She says she was also asked if she could help gay and lesbian people in social work situations.
Brooker says she was required to sign a contract with the department pledging to follow the National Association of Social Work’s code of ethics, which does not refer to homosexuality. She alleges the contract requires her to change her religious beliefs and conform to social work standards to continue enrollment in the School of Social Work.
Allison Nadelhaft, of the association’s national office, says the code does not ask prospective social workers to give up their religious beliefs but to recognize and respect people of different backgrounds, including sexual orientation.
“We understand social workers come to their professions with various perspectives,” she says. “Maybe the faculty was interpreting the code differently. There are plenty of conservative social workers. There’s even a Christian social workers association.”
French says Brooker was called before the ethics committee because she complained about Kauffman to her adviser and challenged a grade she had received in another Kauffman class. Kauffman allegedly said Brooker was often late to class and didn’t participate in class discussions.
The complaint alleges that Brooker was told by faculty that she would have to “lessen the gap” between her personal beliefs and professional obligations. Nadelhaft says the association would never ask someone to do that.
French says Brooker signed the contract so she could complete the program.
“She was bullied into signing the contract. She was fearful of her ability to graduate. She was given an ultimatum,” he says. “Students are not lawyers. They don’t know where their rights begin or end.”
Brooker, who has since graduated from the program, is seeking unspecified monetary damages and fees and wants to have the grievance against her and the contract removed from her record.
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