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When graduate student Julea Ward was faced with the prospect of counseling a gay student as part of her training at Eastern Michigan University, she refused, claiming that providing counseling for a gay person violated her religious freedom.
The school kicked Ward out of the program. EMU follows the American Counseling Association’s code of ethics. Under its nondiscrimination policy, the ACA rules that “Counselors do not condone or engage in discrimination based on age, culture, disability, ethnicity, race, religion, spirituality, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, marital status/partnership, language preference, socioeconomic status or any basis prescribed by law.” Because Ward refused to follow ACA standards, the school did not think she should be allowed to continue counseling.
The backlash from Ward’s removal led a group of 34 conservative State House Republicans introduced a bill that would penalize colleges and universities if counseling students are required to provide services to all students. The bill would permit students to refuse to counsel a client if doing so conflicts with a student’s religious belief or moral conviction. House Bill 5040 has passed the State House, yet remains in the Government Relations Committee.
Ward, represented by The Alliance Defense Fund filed, suit on April 2, 2009. The Alliance Defense Fund asked the court to order EMU to change its counseling curriculum to allow counseling students to refer clients elsewhere on issues related to same sex relationships, abortion and premarital sex.
Ward lost the first court case, but appealed. Last week EMU decided to settle the case rather than face years of expensive litigation. Ward obtained a $75,000 settlement and her expulsion is removed from her record as part of the legal settlement.
Walter Kraft, Vice President of Communications at EMU made it clear that by settling the school has no intention of changing it’s policies. “The resolution of the lawsuit leaves the university’s policies, programs and curricular requirements intact. The faculty retains its right to establish, in its learned judgment, the curriculum and program requirements for the counseling program at Eastern Michigan University,” Kraft said.
“EMU has made the decision that it is in the best interest of its students and the taxpayers of the state of Michigan to resolve the litigation rather than continue to spend money on a costly trial. The matter has been resolved in the amount of $75,000. The University’s insurance company, M.U.S.I.C. (Michigan Universities Self-Insurance Corporation), will pay the cost of the settlement.”
Jay Kaplan, Staff Attorney for the ACLU LGBT Project agreed that the settlement does not enable counseling students to discriminate.
“The settlement between Eastern Michigan and Julea Ward was a private settlement and EMU apparently felt that it was in its best interests to reach this settlement. In no way does this settlement constitute an admission that EMU violated the religious rights of Ward. The same legal principle remains, public universities can have certain core curricular and academic standards, including a counseling program that requires that students should not discriminate in providing counseling services,” Kaplan said. “When a student voluntarily chooses to enter a non-religious affiliated public university counseling program, she is subject to those core curricular and academic standards and is not exempt to those standards. A particular religious belief does not afford a right to discriminate in non-religious activities.”
GLSEN, PFLAG, Affirmations and Ruth Ellis Center collectively wrote an amicus brief in support of EMU’s decision to expel Ward, stating “understand the critical role of counselors in creating an environment where all young people, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity and express, feel safe and accepted at school and in the world. Those experiences have helped them to understand the harmful role that counselors who do not follow the ACA’s ethical standards can play in undermining LGBTQ students’ self-esteem, self-worth and overall mental health.”