The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ordered a trial at the district level for a graduate level counseling student who was dismissed from her program for asking that a client with “gay” issues be referred to another counselor because as a Christian she could not affirm that lifestyle choice.

Officials at Eastern Michigan University took that action against Julea Ward, a student approaching the end of her degree program with a 3.91 grade point average, even though, as the appeals judges noted, the school’s own practices in fact permitted such referrals.

The result is that a jury needs to make a determination on whether officials at the school attacked Ward because of her Christian beliefs or not, the ruling said.

“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,” said the opinion, written by Circuit Judge Jeffrey Sutton.

The opinion 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 judge 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.”

“Public universities shouldn’t force students to violate their religious beliefs to get a degree. The court rightly understood this and ruled appropriately,” said Alliance Defense Fund Counsel Jeremy Tedesco, who argued before the court in October of last year.

“Rather than allow Julea to refer a potential client to another qualified counselor – a common, professional practice to best serve clients – EMU attacked and questioned Julea’s religious beliefs and ultimately expelled her from the program because of them.”

He noted that the judges determined, “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.”

The school launched its disciplinary attack on Ward shortly after she enrolled in a “practicum” in the counseling school in 2009. She was assigned a potential client regarding assistance with a same-sex sexual relationship.

Eastern Michigan president Susan W. Martin

Ward recognized the potential issue and asked her supervisor how to handle the matter. She was told to reassign the client to a different counselor.

Then, however, Ward was ordered to undergo “remediation” to “see the error of her ways” and change her “belief system” or be dismissed.

EMU faculty members then “denigrated” Ward’s Christian beliefs, including a taunt about whether her “brand” of Christianity was superior to that of other Christians.

In fact, the appeals court noted, even the textbooks used by EMU affirmed that a sound counseling practice is to allow values-based referrals. One said, “If the client selects goals that severely conflict with the helper’s values … the helper may decide to refer the client.”

Even the school’s own expert was conflicted, the opinion said, stating that while refusing to counsel on issues related to sexual orientation is a violation of ethics, he also confirmed many counselors do, in fact, refer homosexuals to others.

“A reasonable jury could conclude that practicum students were required to follow the written code of ethics, not an unwritten (yet-to-be-enforced) no-referrals policy. The epitome of a pretextual explanation for a student’s expulsion is a reason never expressed or invoked before.”

Ward explains her own case:

The judges said, “A reasonable jury also could find evidence of religious-speech discrimination from the formal review. … Many of the participants’ comments and questions focused on Ward’s beliefs and her religious objection to affirming same-sex relationships.”

Such statements, the court said, “permit the inference that Ward’s religious beliefs motivated their actions.”

“A reasonable jury could find that the university dismissed Ward from its counseling program because of her faith-based speech, not because of any legitimate pedagogical objective.”

WND earlier reported that lawmakers in Michigan raised objections to the school’s actions, with members of the Michigan Senate working on legislation including a provision calling on university counseling programs to evaluate and affirm how they can accommodate the religious beliefs of students.

State Rep. Tom McMillin told WND at the time the case was “extremely alarming,” and there was growing support for an effort to penalize universities that don’t accommodate religious beliefs.

“This is a state-taxpayer-supported university,” he said. “She’s got a court case. Hopefully that will be resolved.”

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