Seeking ‘freedom of conscience’ for students

By Bob Unruh

The Michigan Legislature is getting close to a statement about “freedom of conscience” for students, which would address an apparent practice of discrimination that was uncovered in the state’s higher education system.

Members of the lawmaking body have referred to a state Senate committee a proposal called the Julea Ward Freedom of Conscience Act. The bill is named for a university student who was ejected from a university counseling training program for refusing to violate her religious beliefs by affirming homosexual behavior.

The move already has been approved by the state House.

“I applaud the Michigan House of Representatives for standing beside the patient and the counselor,” said Mat Staver, chairman of Liberty Counsel Action. “This commonsense approach serves the client and the counselor-in-training.

“I call on the Michigan Senate to pass the Julea Ward Freedom of Conscience Act,” he said.

The bill stemmed from the controversy created when officials at Eastern Michigan University expelled Ward, a student approaching the end of her degree program with a 3.91 grade point average.

Her offense was to ask to refer a potential client to another counselor before she met with him when it became apparent that affirming homosexuality would be an issue in the counseling. That would violate her Bible-based beliefs, she said.

Liberty Action explained the new state statute would forbid public colleges from disciplining a psychology student for refusing to counsel against sincerely held religious beliefs.

The proposal, HB5040, employs “values-based referrals”: Counselors-in-training may refer clients who request treatment outside the counselor’s deeply held religious beliefs to another clinician. The bill was written to balance the client’s right to self-determination with the counselor’s freedom of conscience.

Earlier this year, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered a trial at the district court level for Ward. It noted that the school’s own practices permitted referrals like that Ward had requested.

The appeals court ruled a jury needs to determine whether or not school officials attacked Ward because of her Christian beliefs.

“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 last October.

“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.

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.

At the time, State Rep. Tom McMillin told WND 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.”

He is one of dozens of sponsors of the legislation, which passed the House on June 12 and now has been assigned to the Senate Committee on Government.

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