by Lucy Hough
Eastern Michigan University is known for being accepting of LGBT students and staff alike. It has a vibrant and prominent gay student population, sweeping non-discrimination policies and an LGBT Resource Center. Recently, higher education watchdog group Campus Pride awarded EMU 4.5 out of 5 stars on its LGBT-friendly Campus Climate Index, noting it as a “premier campus” for gay students to attend.
But in the case of graduate counseling student Julea Ward, who was dismissed from her program for refusing to counsel a gay student, the debate has risen as to whether the school has taken their pro-gay policies too far, or if their actions were justified.
Last year, Ward sued Eastern Michigan University for dismissing her after she referred a homosexual client to another counselor during practicum because, due to her Christian beliefs, she could not affirm that client’s relationship.
However, a federal judge ruled July 26 that EMU did nothing wrong by dismissing Ward, who the school said did not meet the program’s expectations.
Julea Ward’s story
In January 2009, Ward referred a client seeking help for depression to another counselor before ever meeting with him, because she saw within the client’s file that he had previously come in for help with a relationship he had with another male. Due to her actions, Ward’s supervisor arranged an informal review, during which Ward was given three options: complete a remediation program, voluntarily leave the counseling program, or request a formal hearing. Ward requested a formal hearing.
A remediation program was a way for Ward to be trained on how to work with clients with different viewpoints and values.
Ward’s counsel, the Alliance Defense Fund, which represents religious cases throughout the country, refused Between The Lines’ request for an interview. However, in a press release they stated their belief that, “(The remediation plan’s) purpose was to help her ‘see the error of her ways’ and change her ‘belief system’ as it relates to counseling about homosexual relationships.”
David Kaplan, chief professional officer for the American Counseling Association – the organization that provides the Code of Ethics to which Eastern’s program follows – disagreed that Eastern had any intention to change Ward’s beliefs, but instead handled the situation appropriately by allowing her an opportunity to be trained.
“Learning to counsel clients who have different values than you do is very difficult, it’s a learned skill and it takes practice,” Kaplan said. “So when a student has difficulty with that, as with any of the other skills in counseling … you work out a remediation plan.”
Instead, the formal hearing took place on March 10, 2009. A board of professors and a student representative heard Ward’s perspective on the situation and asked her about other case scenarios, including how she would handle a student considering abortion or a student who is a different religion. There is some discussion that the questions asked were too intrusive, but the judge ruled that though it may have been “indelicate,” the board “never demonstrated a purpose to change her religious beliefs.”
On March 12, a letter was sent to Ward informing her that the board decided to dismiss her from the counseling program. The letter stated, “It was the unanimous opinion of the committee that clear and convincing evidence was presented that, by your behavior, you have violated the ACA Code of Ethics.”
Ward filed her complaint to the courts on April 2 of last year. In it, the ADF maintains that by dismissing her, the school implied that she needs to change her religious beliefs, engaged in “viewpoint discrimination” and also participated in illegal “speech codes” which are rules or regulations that limit speech in some way.
Acting as gatekeepers
After Judge George Caram Steeh issued his ruling on July 26 of this year, the ADF retorted in a press release that they will appeal as high as the case needs to go.
EMU and the ACA maintain that the university made the most responsible decision in dismissing Ward.
“(The ruling) is recognition that she was dismissed from the program for failing to meet curriculum requirements – nothing more and nothing less,” said Walter Kraft, vice president of communications at EMU. “This case has never been about religious values or sexual orientation; this case is about what’s in the best interest of the client.”
“One of the things that we talk about … is that training programs act as gatekeepers. And the gate-keeping function is a very difficult function to do, but (it) is making an assessment as to whether this person will maintain the standards of the profession and do a good job,” Kaplan said. “And if, for whatever reason, a student is not able or willing to uphold the standards and learn the skills to the requisite level, the program has an obligation to gate-keep them out of the profession because it’s in the best interest of the client.”
Kaplan said that one of the ACA’s tenants is that the client is more important than the counselor. He acknowledged that those in training to be counselors are important, but ultimately it is the client that both the counselor and the greater professional body are working for. With this in mind, he insisted that it’s incredibly important that counselors set aside their personal beliefs to provide a better environment for the client.
“Your personal beliefs are set aside to help your clients,” Kaplan said. “In other words, … you don’t have to believe that homosexuality is appropriate, you just have to be able to work with a homosexual client.”
Both the ACA and EMU hope that when the case is appealed, a future judge will rule similarly because of what it inevitably applies for both of their educational standards.
“What many of us are hoping is that this court case affirms the ACA’s Code of Ethics, it affirms the non-discrimination clause of the Code of Ethics,” Kaplan said. “It affirms that programs can support multiculturalism and diversity so it supports everything we’re doing and it prevents people from wanting to discriminate against clients with certain characteristics.”
For Perry Francis, a professor of counseling at Eastern in charge of counseling in the clinic and a member of the formal review board, he hates to see something like this happen but understands its importance.
“I feel as if it is a tough situation for everyone. I’m sorry that Julea Ward finds herself in this situation,” Francis said. “It has distracted a lot of people, but at the same time, it is a very important principle.”