Julea Ward’s lawsuit against Eastern Michigan University was recently reinstated by a federal court of appeals.
Ward’s legal representation was provided by the Alliance Defense Fund, a legal organization that describes itself as, “a Christian legal alliance defending religious liberty, sanctity of life, marriage, and the family.”
Jeremy Tedesco, Ward’s ADF lawyer, said Ward is seeking admission back into her program, her degree, an unforeseen sum in damages, and an “injunctive relief that would prohibit the school from being able to do this again in the future to another student.”
Tedesco said the court recognized Ward’s rights were violated by the EMU.
“The court said that the university can’t force a student to alter or violate her beliefs as a condition to getting a degree. That’s what we’ve been saying the university was up to from the beginning,” Tedesco said. “The Sixth Circuit really hit that and said, ‘That’s unacceptable. The First Amendment doesn’t allow it.’ ”
In a statement written by EMU vice president for communications, Walter Kraft, the university stressed that the court reinstated the case without making a ruling on it.
“The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals made no legal findings against the university,” Kraft said in the university’s statement. “It did not rule that the university engaged in discrimination and it did not rule in favor of Julea Ward. Rather, the Sixth Circuit Court ruled that there needs to be additional legal proceedings before a decision can be reached. The Court also found that the Regents and the President of Eastern Michigan University were properly dismissed from the lawsuit and refused to reinstate them despite Ward’s request.”
Although it didn’t make a ruling in the case, the court’s official written opinion sympathized with Ward. The court examined both provisions in the ACA code of ethics Ward was accused of violating and said it didn’t view her behavior to have been in violation of either.
The first provision was counselors be aware of their personal values, avoid imposing values that are inconsistent with counseling goals, and respect the diversity of clients, trainees and research participants.
“What exactly did Ward do wrong in making the referral request? If one thing is clear after three years of classes, it’s 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,” the court said.
The second provision was that counselors are not permitted to condone or engage in discrimination based on several characteristics, including sexual orientation.
“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,” the court said.
The court further said the ACA code of ethics allows counselors to make referrals based on their values.
“Not only did Ward’s referral request respect these provisions, but another provision of the code of ethics expressly permits values-based referrals,” the court said.
The courts opinion on Ward’s adherence to these provisions was contrary to the brief the ACA submitted to the court.
Section II of the brief was titled, “EMU properly dismissed Ms. Ward for failure to adhere to the ACA code and hence to fulfill an academic requirement that was reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns.”
Therein, the ACA said, “Ms. Ward triggered the ethical obligations of her supervisors when she asked for referral based on the sexual orientation of a practicum client. At that point, her supervisor had an obligation ‘to assist [her] in securing remedial assistance.’ Rather than seek to work within the ethical standards of the profession, however, Ms. Ward refused, unequivocally, to treat clients who wish to discuss homosexual relationships, or any client that wished to discuss a premarital relationship.
This conduct showed deficiencies in her ability to become a counselor, and her supervisors were obliged to respond accordingly.”
Tedesco said the court’s ruling was an advancement for the civil rights of all college students.
“It’s a really important victory for First Amendment rights on campus,” he said. “What we’re seeing is public universities and these associations like the American Counseling Association that adopt these codes of ethics, is those groups starting to interpret the code of ethics in professions that gerrymander people of faith out of the profession completely.”
The university said Ward’s religious beliefs weren’t what precipitated her expulsion.
“This case has never been about religion or religious discrimination,” Kraft said in the university’s statement. “It is not about homosexuality or sexual orientation. This case is about what is in the best interest of a person who is in need of counseling, and following the curricular requirements of our highly respected and nationally accredited counseling program, which adheres to the Code of Ethics of the American Counseling Association and the Ethical Standards of the American School Counselor Association. Those Ethical Standards require that counselors are not to allow their personal values to intrude into their professional work.”
The official transcript from the formal hearing leading to Ward’s expulsion played a significant role in the court’s determining whether there was evidence that Ward had been discriminated against.
Ward read a letter at the hearing that she originally sent to Dr. Suzanne Dugger, professor in the department of leadership and counseling.
“During my individual supervisory meeting with Dr. Callaway, I told her that affirming or validating homosexual behavior violated my religious beliefs and that I, therefore, would not be able to counsel any clients seeking counseling regarding their homosexual behavior,” Ward said according to the official transcript. “Dr. Callaway told me that not all Christians believed as I did and laughed when I told her I would not sell-out God.”
Dugger testified against Ward during the formal hearing.
“It is my professional opinion, that Ms. Ward is selectively using her religious beliefs in order to
rationalize her discrimination against one group of people. You’ll see in my recommendation that because Ms. Ward firmly indicated that she is unwillingly to reconsider her willingness to counsel gay clients about relationship issues and because such behavior violates ACA’s code of ethics, it’s my recommendation that Ms. Ward be dismissed from the counseling program,” Dugger said according to the official transcript.
Throughout the hearing, members of the committee probed Ward with questions in order to understand her reasoning behind the referral and thereby determine the veracity of Dugger’s allegations. For example, Ward was asked whether she thinks homosexuality is a choice. She said yes.
The following is one of the excerpts (responsibly condensed for space) from the transcript the court singled out in its opinion. The person questioning Ward in this excerpt is Dr. Gary Marx.
“MARX: So I guess what I am trying to figure is how someone with such strong religious beliefs would enter a profession that would cause you to go against those beliefs by its stated code of ethics. That’s what I don’t understand. Why would you put yourself in that position?
WARD: I think that this is based on interpretation. For example, when I look at the provision that talks about, uh, reasons that you can give a referral, and it says, recognizing the personal, moral and competence issues related to end of life decisions.”
The court said they found the nature of this questioning to be potentially discriminatory.
“These statements represent the contemporaneous thoughts of the decision-makers who dismissed Ward, and they permit the inference that Ward’s religious beliefs motivated their actions, particularly in the absence of a formal policy barring referrals… 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. 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 court said.