Eastern Michigan University has agreed to pay up for expelling a Christian student from a counseling program who avoided counseling homosexual patients about their sexuality by reassigning them to another counselor.
The Alliance Defending Freedom, which represented student Julea Ward, confirmed the case was closed by a court order after Eastern Michigan University officials paid “a sum of money” and removed the expulsion from her record.
The school boasted that the settlement, which cost its insurance company $75,000, left intact the “policies, programs and curricular requirements” that were the focal point of the lawsuit over its treatment of Ward.
“The faculty retains its right to establish, in its learned judgment, the curriculum and program requirements for the counseling program at Eastern Michigan University,” said Walter Kraft, a school vice president.
It was those very policies and practices that had the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals aghast.
“What exactly did Ward do wrong in make the referral request? If one thing is clear after three years of classes, it is that Ward is acutely aware of her own values. The point of the referral request was to avoid imposing her values on gay and lesbian clients. And the referral request not only respected the diversity of practicum clients, but it also conveyed her willingness to counsel gay and lesbian clients about other issues – all but relationship issues – an attitude confirmed by her equivalent concern about counseling heterosexual clients about extra-marital sex and adultery in a values-affirming way,” the appeals court opinion, written by Circuit Judge Jeffrey Sutton, said earlier.
The court had ordered a trial, but the school settled rather than “continue to spend money on a costly trial.”
The 6th Circuit said the evidence suggests Ward “was willing to work with all clients and to respect the school’s affirmation directives in doing so.”
“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?” the judges said.
“Surely, for example, the ban on discrimination against clients based on their religion (1) does not require a Muslim counselor 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.”
The judges said: “Tolerance is a two-way street. Otherwise, the rule mandates orthodoxy, not anti-discrimination.”
ADF said even though counseling referrals are a common and accepted professional practice, the university instead chose to expel Ward “when she sought to avoid violating her religious beliefs by referring a potential client to another counselor.”
Senior Legal Counsel Jeremy Tedesco, who argued before the court in October of last year, said public universities “shouldn’t force students to violate their religious beliefs to get a degree.”
“The 6th Circuit rightly understood this and ruled appropriately, so the university has done the right thing in settling this case,” he said.
“When Julea sought to refer a potential client to another qualified counselor – a common, professional practice that is endorsed by her profession’s code of ethics – EMU denied the referral. Then it attacked and questioned her religious beliefs, ultimately expelling her from the program. We are pleased that Julea and her constitutionally protected rights have been vindicated.”
ADF reported school officials initiated the disciplinary process against Ward shortly after she enrolled in a counseling practicum course in January 2009. She was assigned a potential client seeking assistance regarding a sexual relationship that was contrary to Ward’s religious convictions. ADF said Ward recognized the potential conscience issue with the client and asked a supervisor how to handle the matter.
The supervisor told Ward to reassign the potential client to a different counselor, but EMU then scolded Ward for her beliefs and said she could only stay in the counseling program if she agreed to undergo a “remediation” program. The aim was to help her “see the error of her ways” and change her “belief system.”
The appeals court said “a reasonable jury could conclude that Ward’s professors ejected her from the counseling program because of hostility toward her speech and faith.”
The court said, “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.”
The dispute earlier prompted state lawmakers in Michigan to work on a “freedom of conscience” bill for students, which would address the discrimination against Ward.
Liberty Counsel Action said the goal of the proposal was to forbid public colleges from disciplining a student for refusing to counsel against sincerely held religious beliefs.