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Posted on Tue, May 4, 2010 : 12:53 p.m.

Suit against EMU prompts lawmakers to push for reports on protecting students' religious beliefs

By Dave Gershman

Lawmakers in the Michigan Senate are demanding the state’s public universities report on how they’re protecting the religious beliefs of students in counseling degree programs, nearly a year after an advocacy group sued Eastern Michigan University on behalf of student Julea Ward.

The Senate’s demand, contained in its higher education appropriations budget that was passed in late March, would have to survive the budget process still under way in Lansing to land on the desks of university presidents.

“The lawsuit is working its way through the court,” said Leigh Greden, EMU’s executive director of government and community relations. “And we hope the legislature will let the judicial process play out.”

In April 2009, the Alliance Defense Fund Center for Academic Freedom, a conservative public interest group focusing on religious freedom sued EMU alleging Ward's civil rights were violated when she was dismissed from her counseling degree program at EMU because of her religious beliefs regarding homosexuality.

The one-paragraph directive contained in the Senate’s budget states: “It is the intent of the legislature that each public university shall submit a report to the House and Senate appropriations committees by Oct. 15, 2010, on the university’s efforts to accommodate the sincerely held religious beliefs of students enrolled in counseling degree programs at the university.”

State Rep. Alma Wheeler Smith, whose district includes the EMU campus, said she was certain the language would not be contained in the budget that will be passed by the House’s appropriations committee. But there could be an effort to add the language to the bill on the floor of the House, she said.

Any differences in the Senate and House versions of the budget bill would get ironed out in a conference committee.

Smith, a Democrat who is running for governor, said she would oppose the measure because the State Constitution and rulings of the U.S. Supreme Court established that public universities like EMU have autonomy to determine whom to accept or reject in their academic programs and set academic standards.

“The university dismissed her from that course, not from the university,” said Smith. “That left every other program in the university open to her.”

Ward, while pursuing a master's degree in the K-12 counseling program, had objected to counseling a client in a faculty-supervised practicum. The client had wished to discuss a homosexual relationship. Ward referred the client to another counselor, following instructions on how to handle ethical dilemmas, her attorneys claimed.

Ward is a “Christian who derives her beliefs and moral values from the Bible,” according to the lawsuit. She was asked to undergo a remediation process and change her beliefs relating to counseling about homosexuality, which she refused.

EMU has stated the student was not discriminated against. EMU’s handbook for students in the counseling program sets out that they must adhere to American Counseling Association standards, which require counselors not to discriminate based on, among other things, sexual orientation. Ward was eventually dismissed from the program.

A judge has dismissed the EMU Board of Regents and EMU President Susan Martin as defendants in the lawsuit, leaving Ward’s claims to proceed against faculty members in the counseling program.

Both sides have filed motions for summary judgment. A hearing in the case is scheduled for June 24 in U.S. District Court, said Gloria Hage, EMU’s general counsel.

• Download a pdf of the lawsuit

Dave Gershman is a freelance writer for Contact the News Desk at 734-623-2530.



Sat, Aug 7, 2010 : 12:55 p.m.

I'm a little late to comment on this, but... It's not clear to me that Ms. Ward discriminated against the student who sought counsel. It doesn't sound like she treated the individual with any disrespect but rather asked for a different client in her practicum. This is standard for any health care professional who is faced with an ethical dilemma. Although she wasn't comfortable offering advice specific to the client's homosexuality, it is a mistake to assume she wouldn't have served the individual in her restaurant or offered other human respect and care. But to expect her to ignore her religious beliefs regarding the "rightness" or "wrongness" of homosexuality and homosexual sex acts is unfair. Stepping aside so that someone else could counsel the client showed maturity and concern that the client receive the help they sought. There may have been a way Ms. Ward could have addressed her concerns about such a scenario arising prior to this event. But it's hard for me to fault Ms. Ward for acknowledging her concerns and seeking advice on how she should proceed from her course leader. And she followed the advice of this EMU faculty member. One last thought. It seems we are eager to show compassion on the homosexual client, but not so eager to show compassion to Ms. Ward. I wonder why that is. I wonder if we would be more tolerant if Ms. Ward were Muslim, as another commenter suggested. Seems we are particularly harsh on our Christian brethren in our comments. My point of view.

Barb Wood

Wed, May 5, 2010 : 1:36 p.m.

The response by our state Senate to this issue is appalling. As stated by the American Psychological Association, "Psychologists, psychiatrists and other mental health professionals agree that homosexuality is not an illness, mental disorder or emotional problem." So, why should a state sponsored university be required to allow a student who will not follow the APA standards to graduate its counseling program?!? This is clearly another example of our state senators not understanding the separation of church and state.

Jenna Thom

Wed, May 5, 2010 : 12:08 p.m.

@mick52: as the article states "EMUs handbook for students in the counseling program sets out that they must adhere to American Counseling Association standards, which require counselors not to discriminate based on, among other things, sexual orientation." The handbook for the PROGRAM states this, not the material specifically for this class. There were discussions on multiple occasions about this with the student. Read the PDF of the lawsuit and you will see that she was aware of the requirement. This was not a change in the program that she did not like. This was a requirement that she wanted to ignore and be exempt from. As for attending another school, I am sure christian schools would have allowed her to be exempt. However, the christian school would still have to adhere to federal anti-discrimination laws and design their program so that they would not be in violation. EMU can't change their program (a program that meets all professional conduct standards for counseling) to suit one student who is violating FEDERAL anti-discrimination laws. People cannot use religion to discriminate against others in the public workplace. It is not right. If the student cannot handle dealing with counseling the general public then she needs to go into a different field or a religious field (i.e. ministry.


Wed, May 5, 2010 : 10:58 a.m.

I wonder if EMU's actions would have been the same if a Muslim counselor had the same ethical conflict? Referring the student to another counselor seems like an appropriate response to me. EMU's response to the counselor seems very heavy handed.


Wed, May 5, 2010 : 10:44 a.m.

Jenna's comments puzzle me: "Ms. Ward signed up for this program knowing what the requirements were for the program." Do you know this for a fact? Before registering, are students told everything they will encounter. I doubt it. I just graduated from EMU and I can tell you many of the class descriptions are inaccurate and you do not find out what is going to happen in class until long after the day when you can drop and get your tuition back. "She could have chosen to go to another program elsewhere that allowed her to discriminate against homosexuals but she did not." Jenna, please give us a few examples of other programs that assure students they will be allowed to discriminate against homosexuals. Provide some documentation that they do indeed promote such discrimination. Be specific, use examples. I think that if your opinion is true, the news article would have included facts from EMU that students told up front that such instances could occur. Lets do some hyptheticals. Suppose a woman who was a victim of a violent rape was enrolled in this program. During her studies, she is assigned to counsel a violent rapist. Would she be allowed to approach her instructor and asked for a re-assignment due to ethical issues? Or suppose an African American student who was a victim of racial discrimination were assigned to counsel a KKK member. Would EMU dismiss the student from the program upon raising an ethical issue? I think an important issue is making sure a person needing counseling receives the best counseling possible. Forcing a person with an ethical issue may not provide excellent counseling. I prefer the right person for the task.


Wed, May 5, 2010 : 8:35 a.m.

Also - how does this become a mandate that she should "know what its like to be discrimiated against" like homesexuals do... people push their own agendas even if it conflicts with about some objectivity and not push your agenda down others throats! Mick 52 said it best "EMUs actions were completely inappropriate. This student did was she was told to do, and she did it in the best interests of the person seeking aid. She had an ethical issue, but apparently EMU is telling her that EMU will decide what her ethics are allowed to address."


Wed, May 5, 2010 : 8:32 a.m.

EMU - get ready for another legal beatdown! When will we learn and make good PR decisions? Its so logically what should have happened - the person requesting counsel should have been passed to the next counsler! How simple is that? Instead, EMU is fighting another lawsuit and will again, LOSE!

David Briegel

Wed, May 5, 2010 : 4:50 a.m.

Like embryonic stem cell research the Flat Earth Society wants to take charge of science. The nonexistent "war on religion" is actually the opposite. Zealots are waging a war on sanity! If a person believed in the Tooth Fairy or Santa Claus they would be considered delusional. She might want to go "walk with the dinosaurs" at the creation museum.

Macabre Sunset

Tue, May 4, 2010 : 4:18 p.m.

The professional requirements of psychologists are different from what's acceptable in a public setting. Because of the vulnerability of a patient who needs to be able to share these inner feelings, psychologists cannot interject their own biases. So Ward was appropriately disciplined. EMU would not be responsibly maintaining the standards of the profession if it allowed her to receive a degree knowing that she was incapable of handling a percentage of her prospective patients. Of course, the irony is that this patient was likely better served by Ward being honest about herself. But she did so, essentially violating a "don't ask, don't tell" policy against discrimination. Once EMU knew she discriminates, it could not allow her to remain in a position of responsibility.


Tue, May 4, 2010 : 3:36 p.m.

My son is in a Ph.D. program for clinical psychology. Those individuals who don't tow the line in terms of the professional guidelines are weeded out. This girl needs to learn how to put her religious beliefs behind her and suck it up. In addition, therapy is in order so she can work out her issues with this type of thing before she can treat anyone. What happens when the subject of homosexuality comes up as a matter of rust regular counseling with straight people who have a gay child? Does she just dump them?

Jenna Thom

Tue, May 4, 2010 : 2:12 p.m.

EMU is 100% correct in this. Ms. Ward signed up for this program knowing what the requirements were for the program. She could have chosen to go to another program elsewhere that allowed her to discriminate against homosexuals but she did not. This is not the only counseling program that exists where she could earn this degree. She went into the classes knowing full well what she would have to do to earn the degree. What if someone refused to counsel Jews or african americns or muslims based on their own personal religious beliefs, would that be ok with her and her supporters also? And even when a counselor goes into private practice is it ok for them to pick and choose who they want to treat, while hiding behind their religion. Can a shop owner refuse to allow jews, homosexuals, african americans or muslims to patronize their shops while hiding behind their religion? Where does this exception for religious views stop? If you go into a field to help the public and train at a public university that treats the general public, you should abide by the anti-discrimination laws. Maybe she should become a minister instead.


Tue, May 4, 2010 : 2:02 p.m.

This student did what anyone within her program or in the professional counseling community would/should do in a similar situation. When you have a patient/doctor conflict of interest you refer the patient to someone else. This young woman could have kept the client and let her beliefs influence how she treated the him/her. Instead she chose to refer the patient to someone who would not have any religious beliefs that would conflict with the counseling. She wasn't discriminating against the client. Had she been, she would have kept the person as a patient and used her religious beliefs to counsel him/her.

Kevin S. Devine

Tue, May 4, 2010 : 2:02 p.m.

Thanks for following the story, Dave. It will be interesting to see how the case and the appropriations budget both turn out. In the meantime, a dozen additional comments, including some from students in Julea Ward's program, have been posted at in response to an April 11 follow-up story on Ward by the Echo's news editor, Katrease Stafford. Here is a link to the story and the comments:


Tue, May 4, 2010 : 1:30 p.m.

EMUs actions were completely inappropriate. This student did was she was told to do, and she did it in the best interests of the person seeking aid. She had an ethical issue, but apparently EMU is telling her that EMU will decide what her ethics are allowed to address. Had EMU simply assigned another student to the patient, none of this would have occurred. In the court system, a ruling may set the standard whether EMU likes it or not. In conflict resolution, its best to resolve conflict with a mutual decision, or someone else will resolve it for you.

Woman in Ypsilanti

Tue, May 4, 2010 : 1:28 p.m.

Obviously this student feels discriminated against. I hope she closely examines that feeling and develops some empathy for homosexuals who face worse discrimination all of the time. But her law suit should be thrown out. I don't think freedom of religion allows people to ignore existing laws. There is no protected right to discriminate against others in public settings (like EMU).


Tue, May 4, 2010 : 1:15 p.m.

One should know that, when working within any public system, it is illegal to discriminate. A solution to this would be to pursue an education at a private Bible college and then pursue a career in the private sector as a Christian counselor. In this latter situation, one is allowed to discriminate.