Suit Revived Over Counseling Student’s Refusal to Treat Gays

By Mark Walsh — January 29, 2012 3 min read
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A federal appeals court has revived the lawsuit of a Michigan graduate student who was expelled from her program in school counseling in a dispute over her refusal to treat gay clients.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, in Cincinnati, ruled unanimously Jan. 27 that the student’s case should go before a jury because her university may have discriminated against her based on hostility towards her speech and Christian faith.

The case involves Julea Ward, who had taught English and TV broadcasting at a suburban Detroit high school for 10 years when she decided to become a school counselor in 2006. She enrolled at master’s degree in counseling program at Eastern Michigan University.

Ward soon clashed with her professors over her belief that her Christian faith would prevent her from affirming or validating the homosexual behavior of her clients, according to court papers. Her professors reinforced the view that as a counselor, she would be required to support her clients’ sexual orientation.

When, in 2009, it came time for one-on-one counseling practicum sessions with real clients, Ward learned that one such client was seeking counseling on a same-sex relationship. Ward asked that the client be reassigned to another counseling student.

Ward’s decision came under review at Eastern Michigan, with some faculty members telling her she had violated the ethics code of the American Counseling Association by imposing values that were inconsistent with counseling goals and discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation. She was expelled from the counseling program.

Ward sued on claims that the expulsion violated her First Amendment rights of free speech and free exercise of religion. A federal district court issued summary judgment to the university and various individual defendants, holding that it had enforced a neutral and generally applicable curricular rule.

In its decision in Ward v. Polite, the 6th Circuit court panel threw out the summary judgment and said Ward’s free-speech claim deserved to go before a jury.

“Although the university submits it dismissed Ward from the program because her request for a referral violated the ACA code of ethics, a reasonable jury could find
otherwise—that the code of ethics contains no such bar and that the university deployed it as a pretext for punishing Ward’s religious views and speech,” Judge Jeffrey S. Sutton wrote for the panel.

“What exactly did Ward do wrong in making the referral request?” Sutton added. “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.”

Sutton said counseling textbooks and even some experts who testified for the university seemed to accept values-based referrals. And the university’s argument that it had a blanket rule against referrals for student practicum sessions was something a reasonable jury could find was an “after-the-fact invention,” Sutton said.

“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,” Judge Sutton 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.”

Sutton did take note of a recent ruling by another federal appeals court involving somewhat similar circumstances. On Dec. 16, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, in Atlanta, upheld Augusta State University in Georgia over its refusal to readmit a counseling student who refused to agree to a remediation plan over her attitudes about treating gay clients.

Sutton said that at first blush, the decisions look like “polar opposites,” since a student won in the 6th Circuit case but lost in the 11th Circuit case. But there was less tension or disagreement than meets the eye in the two decisions, Sutton said.

The Georgia counseling student had stated her intention to recommend “conversion therapy” to gay clients and counsel them that they could choose to be straight. That approach would violate the ACA’s ethics coe by imposing the counselor’s values on the client, and the university was free to prohibit such conduct as part of its curriculum, the 11th Circuit held in Keeton v. Anderson-Wiley.

“While Keeton involved Augusta State’s across-the-board application of an ethical rule that prohibits counselors from imposing their values on clients, today’s case reveals evidence that Eastern Michigan University selectively enforced a no-referral policy against Ward,” Judge Sutton said in the 6th Circuit decision.

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.