Lawyers for dismissed EMU student who wouldn't counsel gay client vow to carry fight to Supreme Court if necessary
Eastern Michigan University won a court battle last week, but the losing side has since declared war.
Monday, a federal court upheld the school's decision to kick Christian graduate student Julea Ward out of its counseling program after she refused to affirm a gay client’s relationship during a practicum. She said she believes homosexuality is immoral and being gay is a choice and therefore could not in good conscience counsel the client.
But Ward’s lawyers said the case is far from over. They will file an appeal, and in the meantime are setting the stage for a battle between the religious rights of students and a university’s power to set and uphold its own ethical, disciplinary and curricular standards. The case could have implications reaching far outside of Ypsilanti.
Photo courtesy of the Alliance Defense Fund
“We have every intention of appealing this case until we prevail,” Tedesco continued. “If it goes to the Supreme Court, so be it.”
In refusing to counsel the client, Ward told her professors she could not violate her religious beliefs regarding a gay client’s counseling needs, so she referred him instead to another counselor. The January 2009 incident led to a set of review hearings, Ward’s dismissal and the lawsuit, which charged EMU violated her constitutional rights to free speech, religion and due process.
In his ruling, Judge George Steeh said the issue at stake was whether EMU had the right to enforce requirements of equity that are rooted in the field, not whether Ward’s First and Fourteenth Amendment rights were violated.
In a statement issued Tuesday, EMU officials said they adhered to the Code of Ethics of the American Counseling Association (ACA) and the Ethical Standards of the American School Counselor Association in their decision to dismiss Ward.
Steeh said Ward’s unwillingness to meet with “an entire class” of people was a violation of those codes.
The organization that represented Ward has gone on the offensive. Two days after Ward’s suit was dismissed, the ADF filed a similar lawsuit in a federal court in Georgia. The suit against Augusta State University alleges the school has told a student her Christian views are incompatible with the field of counseling, according to an ADF press release.
What happened to Julea Ward?
In 2006, Ward began EMU’s master’s degree program in counseling. The metropolitan Detroit resident maintained a 3.91 grade point average and was on track to finish her program in May 2010 while working full time as a public school teacher, according to court documents.
On Jan. 26, 2009, she was scheduled to meet with a gay client dealing with relationship issues during a practicum.
Two hours prior to the meeting with the gay student, she asked her supervising professor, Yvonne Callaway, if she could refer the client to another student. Callaway agreed, but Ward’s move prompted the school to schedule an informal hearing because school officials said Ward had violated school and professional standards, including “failure to tolerate different points of view,” court documents show.
In that hearing, EMU officials from the counseling department said they wanted Ward to adhere to a “remediation program” that would require her to affirm and validate homosexual behavior according to the profession's and school’s governing ethics codes, but Ward refused, instead requesting a formal hearing.
In front of the formal review committee March 10, Ward stated she could not in good conscience counsel a client with concerns about a gay relationship in an affirmative way. She would, however, counsel gay clients on any other issue. Ward said that affirming gay relationships “forces me to violate my religious beliefs and conscious.” She said Callaway had laughed at her when she relayed that she would not “sell out” her faith.
In a letter dated March 12, school officials on the four-member review panel notified Ward via letter that they had decided unanimously she would be dismissed from the counseling program immediately.
They found she violated ACA codes of ethics including “Counselors avoid imposing values that are inconsistent with counseling goals” and that counselors “do not condone or engage in discrimination based on age, culture sexual orientation.” Ward’s refusal to change her behavior to fit the codes sealed their decision, according to the letter.
Ward appealed to the EMU School of Education dean, who upheld the panel’s decision via letter March 26. She filed a lawsuit the next month. A judge dismissed the EMU Board of Regents and EMU President Susan Martin as defendants in the lawsuit, and Ward’s claims proceeded against faculty members in the counseling program.
Judge Steeh said in his decision Monday that “the dismissal was entirely due to plaintiff’s refusal to change her behavior, not her beliefs.”
But he also acknowledged the “unfriendly and arrogant remarks” made to Ward during the formal hearing.
Transcripts show the panel frequently interrupted Ward, asked Ward if her “brand of Christianity” was superior to that of other Christians and quizzed her on her views on abortion and whether or not she would counsel those from other religions.
Her lawyers later characterized that disciplinary process as a whole as one that used illegal “speech codes” to silence unpopular views, but the judge disagreed, “because the university’s disciplinary policy is not a speech code but is an integral part of the curriculum.”
The judge wrote Ward “distorted the facts” to support her feeling that she was dismissed due to her religious beliefs. EMU faculty did not want Ward to change her beliefs, but were concerned with her refusal to counsel “an entire class of people whose values she did not share,” Steeh wrote.
Now, Ward is trying to find a way to complete a counseling program at another university, Tedesco said.
The case has stirred up strong feelings on both sides of the issue.
“This isn't about the thought police," Irene Ametrano, an EMU professor of counseling and chairwoman of Ward's formal review committee, was quoted in Inside Higher Ed as saying. “This is about behaviors that are appropriate or not appropriate within counseling."
Officials at EMU were celebrating their ruling last week.
“Monday's ruling in the Julea Ward case was a major victory for Eastern, and for universities across the country, as the administration and our legal team pursued an aggressive legal approach to protect academic freedom and the academic integrity of our programs and faculty,” wrote Walter Kraft, vice president for communications, in an e-mail to faculty and staff.
Jay Kaplan, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, agreed that EMU has a right to set its own curriculum and acted properly in dismissing Ward. The ACLU was not involved in the case.
“The school was never saying, ‘You can’t hold your viewpoint,’” said Kaplan, who litigates on behalf of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people as part of his organization’s LGBT Project.
“As part of their program, students in the counseling program have to learn to focus on the client, and not issues about their values.”
Ward was unable to do this, he said, as her values were at odds with one of the “intrinsic requirements” of the coursework.
Ward’s lawyers, meanwhile, called the dismissal disappointing and unfair and said referring the client was appropriate.
“There are numerous instances where your values could come into conflict with a client’s goals,” Tedesco said. “The professional practice is to offer referral. Who doesn’t bring their values to work in some way?”