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Student expelled over religious objections to homosexuality can sue

It’s always amusing when the high priests of tolerance get caught dishing out their own brand of intolerance.

Friday, the 6th Circuit taught several college professors the simple lesson that “tolerance is a two-way street” in the case of a graduate student who was expelled after she expressed religious objections to affirming homosexual behavior.

The expelled student is Julea Ward. In May 2006, after teaching at a suburban Detroit high school for ten years, Ward decided to add to her professional credentials by becoming a licensed school counselor. In order to achieve that goal, she enrolled at Eastern Michigan University and started taking classes towards a master’s degree in counseling.

In accordance with the American Counseling Association’s (ACA) code of ethics, Eastern Michigan University prohibits students in its counseling-degree program from discriminating against others based on sexual orientation. In fact, students are taught to affirm a client’s values during counseling sessions.

In her three years in the program, Ward frequently expressed a conviction that her Christian faith prevented her from affirming a client’s same-sex relationships as well as sexual relationships outside of marriage. Those views naturally brought her at loggerheads with liberal-minded professors who evidently view deeply held religious beliefs as being of no consequence when compared to someone’s sexual preferences.

Despite these head winds, Ward did quite well in her course work, maintaining a 3.91 GPA. But in order to complete the program, Ward was required to participate in a student practicum that involved counseling real clients. 

At this point Ward’s religious beliefs concerning homosexuality came in direct conflict with the university’s code of ethics. After she counseled two clients in the practicum without incident, the university asked Ward to counsel a gay client.

Ward advised the school that her religious beliefs would preclude her from affirming his sexual orientation. As an accommodation of her Christian faith, Ward requested that the client be referred to another student in the counseling program outright or at the point when a counseling session turned to relationship issues. 

Ward’s faculty supervisor did refer the client to another student, but certain of the program’s professors concluded that Ward had violated the code of ethics and commenced a disciplinary hearing into Ward’s referral request.

A committee composed of several faculty members heard the matter and expelled Ward from the program. This seemed rather harsh, particularly in light of Ward’s academic success and the fact that graduation was in sight.

One wonders why the school just didn’t accommodate Ward’s religious beliefs and allow her to complete the program. After all, public universities are famous for accommodating all sorts of outside-the-norm beliefs and behaviors.

One can imagine that if Ward had been a Wiccan the school would have given her a longer leash. But as someone with deeply held Christian beliefs, she evidently wasn’t going to be cut any slack.

Fortunately, Ward didn’t take the expulsion lying down and filed a §1983 suit against the university and her professors, alleging violations of her First Amendment rights regarding freedom of speech and religion.

The university argued that Ward’s dismissal from the program was justified because her request for a referral violated the American Counseling Association’s code of ethics.

But the court pointed out that it was not entirely clear that the ACA code of ethics prohibited Ward’s request that her gay client be referred to someone else. On this point, the court asked:

What exactly did Ward do wrong in making 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 court observed that the record showed that the program had indeed allowed referral requests in other circumstances, raising a jury question as to whether the school’s treatment of Ward was motivated by impermissible factors.

The court said that the record “shows that the counseling department was willing to avoid unsuitable student-client matches in some instances. 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.”

In reversing the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the university, the court found that “a reasonable jury could conclude that Ward’s professors ejected her from the counseling program because of hostility toward her speech and faith, not due to a policy against referrals.” (Ward v. Polite)

In its decision, the court was careful to distinguish the 11th Circuit’s recent ruling in Keeton v. Anderson-Wiley that the First Amendment does not protect a student in a graduate counseling program who was directed by school officials to enter a remediation program due to her religious views on homosexuality. The 6th Circuit explained:

The two claimants’ theories of constitutional protection … are miles apart. Keeton insisted on a constitutional right to engage in conversion therapy – that is, if a “client discloses that he is gay, it was her intention to tell the client that his behavior is morally wrong and then try to change the client’s behavior.” That approach, all agree, violates the ACA code of ethics by imposing a counselor’s values on a client, a form of conduct the university is free to prohibit as part of its curriculum. Instead of insisting on changing her clients, Ward asked only that the university not change her – that it permit her to refer some clients in some settings, an approach the code of ethics appears to permit and that no written school policy prohibits.

– Pat Murphy

patrick.murphy@lawyersusaonline.com

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