Suit against EMU prompts lawmakers to push for reports on protecting students' religious beliefs
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.
Dave Gershman is a freelance writer for AnnArbor.com. Contact the News Desk at 734-623-2530.