Attorneys will appeal a federal court decision issued Monday in a lawsuit filed on behalf of student Julea Ward against Eastern Michigan University (EMU) after it kicked out the Christian student for holding to her beliefs on homosexual conduct.
EMU dismissed Ward from its graduate counseling program in March 2009 for not affirming homosexual behavior as morally acceptable. Ward would not agree to change her religious beliefs about homosexual behavior or express a message contrary to them during counseling sessions as a condition to receiving a degree.
“Christian students shouldn’t be expelled for holding to and abiding by their beliefs,” said Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) Senior Counsel David French, who argued before the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan last month. “To reach its decision, the court had to do something that’s never been done in federal court: uphold an extremely broad and vague university speech code.”
EMU initiated its disciplinary process against Ward shortly after she enrolled in a counseling practicum course in January 2009, when she was assigned a potential client seeking assistance regarding a homosexual relationship. Recognizing the potential conscience issue with the client, and knowing she could not affirm the client’s homosexual relationship without violating her religious beliefs, Ward asked her supervisor how to handle the matter.
Ward was advised to reassign the potential client to a different counselor. EMU then informed Ward that she could only stay in the counseling program if she agreed to undergo a “remediation” program. Its purpose was to help her “see the error of her ways” and change her “belief system” as it relates to counseling about homosexual relationships.
At a subsequent formal review meeting, lawyers say EMU faculty denigrated Ward’s Christian views and asked several inappropriate and intrusive questions about her religious beliefs. A faculty committee then dismissed her from the counseling program. Ward appealed, but the dean of EMU College of Education upheld the dismissal.
“Julea merely followed her supervising professor’s advice by referring a potential client to a counselor who had no conscience issue with the particular matter to be discussed,” said French. “She would have gladly counseled the client herself had the topic focused on any other matter. We trust the 6th Circuit will understand the constitutional issues involved in this case.”
The EMU speech codes enabling the university’s actions were challenged as part of the ADF lawsuit, Ward v. Wilbanks. One policy prohibiting “discrimination based on … sexual orientation” adds that counselors cannot “condone” what the university defines as discrimination. Another problematic policy states that EMU’s counseling department may discipline a student who shows a “failure to tolerate different points of view.”
ADF is currently litigating a similar case involving a counseling student at Augusta State University in Georgia. Student Jennifer Keeton sued the university after she says she was forced to undergo comprehensive “diversity sensitivity training” and forbidden from expressing her religious beliefs, or else be kicked out of the counseling program.