A Christian student at Eastern Michigan University won a major victory today in her fight against the school over her expulsion from its counseling program because of her views on homosexuality.
The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a lower court summary judgement in the school's favor, saying the facts in the case could lead a reasonable jury to conclude that counseling program administrators discriminated against Julea Ward because they disagreed with her religious convictions.
The appeals court judges found that in situations that did not involve religious beliefs, the school allowed counseling students to refer clients to other counselors. But when Ward made the same request, administrators expelled her from the program.
"Why treat Ward differently?" the judges asked in their 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."
Jeremy Tedesco, the Alliance Defense Fund lawyer who argued Ward's case, praised the court for recognizing Ward's right to retain her religious beliefs while pursuing her education.
"Public universities shouldn't force students to violate their religious beliefs to get a degree," he said in a prepared statement. "The court rightly understood this and ruled appropriately."
Ward, a high school English, radio and television broadcasting teacher who wanted to become a school guidance counselor, enrolled at Eastern Michigan University in 2006 to get a master's degree in counseling. She did well in the program and maintained a 3.9 grade point average, despite occasional disagreements with professors about faith-based issues. She told them her beliefs made it impossible for her to validate and affirm certain sexual relationships, including heterosexual relationships outside of marriage and homosexual relationships.
During her last year of training, Ward 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 told Ward she would have to submit to an informal review for making the referral request.
At the end of the review, the advisor told Ward she could withdraw from the program or request a formal hearing. Ward requested the hearing, during which 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.
But the appeals court found nothing in the association's code that prevented a counselor from referring clients to someone else who would be able to give them better advice. In fact, the code of ethics expressly says that if counselors determine they are unable to assist clients, they may refer them to another counselor.
The appeals court found no basis for the school's claim that it had a policy prohibiting referrals. In at least one other instance, school officials allowed a referral, for a grieving student who did not want to counsel a grieving client. And if the school did have such a policy, the court found evidence that administrators enforced it selectively against Ward.
Because of those inconsistencies, the court ruled that the school did not have a compelling reason to expel Ward.
"Allowing a referral would be in the best interest of Ward (who could counsel someone she is better able to assist) and the client (who would receive treatment from a counselor better suited to discuss his relationship issues)," the judges wrote in their opinion. "The multiple types of referrals tolerated by the counseling profession severely undermine the university's interest in expelling Ward for the referral she requested."
Although the court found "ample evidence" to support the theory that the school implemented its "no referral" policy after Ward asked for a referral on faith-based grounds, the judges chose not to issue a summary judgement in her favor. The case must now go back to a district court to be heard by a jury.