Christian counselor discrimination case settled out of court

Religious Liberty
by Leigh Jones
Posted 12/13/12, 01:00 pm

A Michigan college that lost its fight to expel a Christian counseling student over her beliefs about homosexuality has agreed to settle the case.

Eastern Michigan University (EMU) announced earlier this week it would not appeal the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling issued in January. As part of an agreement to dismiss the case, the school paid Julea Ward $75,000.

The settlement underscores Christian students’ right to seek an education without violating their religious beliefs, said Jeremy Tedesco, the attorney with Alliance Defending Freedom who argued Ward’s case.

“When Julea sought to refer a potential client to another qualified counselor—a common, professional practice that is endorsed by her profession’s code of ethics—EMU denied the referral,” he said. “Then it attacked and questioned her religious beliefs, ultimately expelling her from the program. We are pleased that Julea and her constitutionally protected rights have been vindicated.”

Ward, a high school English, radio and television broadcasting teacher who wanted to become a school guidance counselor, enrolled at EMU in 2006 to get a master's degree in counseling. During her last year of training, she enrolled in a practicum course, which required her to counsel clients. 

After successfully completing counseling relationships with two clients, Ward asked for a referral for the third, who wanted advice on a homosexual relationship. Ward's faculty advisor assigned the client to another counselor but ordered her to undergo a review because of the request. A panel of three faculty members and one student unanimously decided Ward should be expelled from the program for violating the American Counseling Association's code of ethics.

Although a lower court sided with the school, the appeals court ruled in Ward’s favor, saying the facts in the case could lead a reasonable jury to conclude that counseling program administrators discriminated against her because they disagreed with her religious convictions.

"Why treat Ward differently?" the judges asked in a blistering opinion. "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."

Campus religious liberty advocates consider Ward’s case a significant win for Christian counseling students, but a similar case in Georgia shows protections only go so far. In June, Augusta State University student Jennifer Keeton lost another round in her fight with school administrators, who expelled her over her beliefs about homosexuality. 

The case hinged on whether the policies governing the counseling program were neutral and generally applicable to all students, regardless of their religious beliefs. Judge J. Randall Hall, of the Southern District of Georgia, determined that they were. In Ward’s case, the judges ruled that the school punished her for asking to refer a client, something other students had done for non-religious reasons without penalty. Because school officials treated Ward differently, they violated her constitutional rights.

Listen to a report on Julea Ward’s case on WORLD’s radio news magazine The World and Everything in It.

Leigh Jones

Leigh lives in Houston with her husband and daughter. She is the news editor for The World and Everything in It and reports on education for WORLD Digital.

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