WASHINGTON Eastern Michigan University has agreed to settle a lawsuit filed by a graduate counseling student whom it expelled after she declined to affirm the "sexual orientation" of a homosexual client because of her Christian beliefs.
A federal judge dismissed the case Dec. 10 after Eastern Michigan (EMU) and Julea Ward agreed to a settlement. EMU agreed to pay her $75,000, saying it did not want to continue spending money on an expensive trial. It also removed the expulsion from her record, according to Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), which represented Ward in the suit.
The settlement followed by nearly 11 months a win by Ward at the federal appeals court level. A three-judge panel of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati, Ohio, unanimously overturned a federal court's summary judgment that was in favor of EMU. The judges sent the case back to the federal judge for a trial, saying a "reasonable jury" could find Ward did not breach a code of ethics and the school violated her "religious views and speech."
ADF is pleased Ward and "her constitutionally protected rights have been vindicated," said a spokesman for the legal organization.
"Public universities shouldn't force students to violate their religious beliefs to get a degree. The 6th Circuit rightly understood this and ruled appropriately, so the university has done the right thing in settling this case," ADF Senior Legal Counsel Jeremy Tedesco said in a written release.
The school, meanwhile, said the settlement enables it to maintain the requirements in its counseling program.
"The resolution of the lawsuit leaves the University's policies, programs, and curricular requirements intact," said Walter Kraft, EMU's vice president for communications, in a written statement. "
Ward had only four classes remaining at EMU when she entered in 2009 a required practicum that consisted of one-on-one counseling, according to the Sixth Circuit decision. Ward had told her professors her Christian beliefs prevented her from "affirming" or "validating" homosexual behavior. The file for her third client in the practicum reported he sought counseling about a same-sex relationship. When Ward asked her faculty supervisor how she should proceed, the supervisor reassigned the client to another counselor.
A school official said Ward violated sections of the American Counseling Association's (ACA) code of ethics, including "discrimination based on . . . sexual orientation." A review committee agreed and dismissed her from the counseling program, though Ward said she was not opposed to counseling homosexual clients if she was not required to affirm their "sexual orientation."
In its opinion, the Sixth Circuit panel said EMU "cannot point to any written policy that barred Ward from requesting this referral" and several textbooks used in her classes "say that sound counseling practices permit values-based referrals."
The panel questioned why the counseling department treated Ward differently than students in other settings. "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," Jeffrey Sutton wrote in his opinion for the panel. Sutton was nominated to the court by President George W. Bush.
The panel wondered what else the non-discrimination policy might require. "Surely, for example, the ban on discrimination against clients based on their religion (1) does not require a Muslim counselor to tell a Jewish client that his religious beliefs are correct if the conversation takes a turn in that direction and (2) does not require an atheist counselor to tell a person of faith that there is a God if the client is wrestling with faith-based issues," the opinion said. "Tolerance is a two-way street. Otherwise, the rule mandates orthodoxy, not anti-discrimination."
EMU, which is located in Ypsilanti, Mich., has more than 23,000 students, including nearly 4,800 in graduate programs.