Free to Believe

Julea Ward

Eastern Michigan University: Ypsilanti, Michigan

Eastern Michigan University (EMU) initiated disciplinary action against counseling student Julea Ward shortly after she requested a counseling referral to avoid violating her religious beliefs. Enrolled in a counseling practicum course in January 2009, Ward was assigned a potential client seeking assistance regarding a sexual relationship that was contrary to her religious convictions. She recognized the potential conflicts of conscience and interest with the client and asked her supervisor how she should handle the matter. The supervisor advised Ward to reassign the potential client to a different counselor. Although counseling referrals are a common and accepted professional practice, EMU then informed Ward that she could stay in the counseling program only if she underwent a remediation program that would help her “see the error of her ways" and change her “belief system” as it relates to counseling individuals in homosexual relationships.

Ward did not agree to the remediation program and was given the options of either voluntarily leaving the program or asking for a formal review hearing. According to her lawyers at Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF, formerly Alliance Defense Fund), “Ward chose the hearing, during which EMU faculty denigrated her Christian views and asked several inappropriate and intrusive questions about her religious beliefs.”  The hearing committee dismissed her from the counseling program on March 12, 2009.  Ward then appealed the decision to the dean of the College of Education, who upheld the dismissal on March 26, 2009.

“Christian students shouldn’t be penalized for holding to their beliefs,” said ADF Senior Counsel David French.  “When a public university has a prerequisite of affirming homosexual behavior as morally good in order to obtain a degree, the school is stepping over the legal line.  Julea did the responsible thing and followed her supervising professor’s advice to have the client referred to a counselor who did not have a conscience issue with the very matter to be discussed in counseling.  She would have gladly counseled the client if the subject had been nearly any other matter.”

“Julea has a constitutional right not to be compelled to speak a message she disagrees with.  She acted as a professional counselor should—with great concern both for her beliefs and the client,” ADF Legal Counsel Jeremy Tedesco explained.  “The two are not incompatible, but EMU’s policies are incompatible with the Constitution.”

As part of the lawsuit, Ward v. Wilbanks, ADF challenged EMU speech codes. One university policy prohibiting “discrimination based on…sexual orientation” indicated that counselors could not “condone” what the university defines as discrimination.  Another problematic part of the policy stated that EMU’s counseling department could discipline a student who showed a “failure to tolerate different points of view.”

On July 26, 2010, a federal court sided with the school against Ward. But on January 27, 2012, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit ruled in her favor. In a strongly worded opinion, the court reversed a district court decision in favor of the university and sent the case back for trial, saying “a reasonable jury could conclude that Ward’s professors ejected her from the counseling program because of hostility toward her speech and faith….”

In its opinion, the court wrote, “A university cannot compel a student to alter or violate her belief systems based on a phantom policy as the price for obtaining a degree…. Why treat Ward differently? That her conflict arose from religious convictions is not a good answer; that her conflict arose from religious convictions for which the department at times showed little tolerance is a worse answer.”

“Ward was willing to work with all clients and to respect the school’s affirmation directives in doing so,” the 6th Circuit wrote. “That is why she asked to refer gay and lesbian clients (and some heterosexual clients) if the conversation required her to affirm their sexual practices. What more could the rule require? Surely, for example, the ban on discrimination against clients based on their religion (1) does not require a Muslim counselor to tell a Jewish client that his religious beliefs are correct if the conversation takes a turn in that direction and (2) does not require an atheist counselor to tell a person of faith that there is a God if the client is wrestling with faith-based issues. Tolerance is a two-way street. Otherwise, the rule mandates orthodoxy, not anti-discrimination.”

Pete Finnerty, president of the Association for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Issues in Counseling, a division of the American Counseling Association claimed the court case as a victory. He noted, “The conclusion to [Julea Ward v. Board of Regents of Eastern Michigan University] is a win for the LGBTQQIA community, as those who serve this population were activated to defeat the legislation and not allow anti-gay groups to press their agenda upon the counseling profession that holds equitable and fair treatment as paramount to counseling. LGBTQQIA clients can be sure that counselors will continue to be trained through a multicultural lens where nondiscrimination and personal growth, not a counselor’s personal values, is pertinent to the counseling relationship. For counselors and educators, this shows that believing in a world that values nondiscrimination and diversity is still very much a plausible reality and must be continually strived for.”

However, on December 10, 2012, Eastern Michigan University agreed to settle.  As part of the agreed-upon order of dismissal, EMU agreed to pay Ward a sum of money to settle her claims and to remove the expulsion from her record.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Alliance Defending Freedom