Federal Judge Upholds Dismissal of Counseling Student Who Balked at Treating Gay Clients
A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit filed against Eastern Michigan University by a student who was kicked out of its graduate program in school counseling last year for refusing, on religious grounds, to affirm homosexual behavior in serving clients.
In an order granting summary judgment to the university on Monday, Judge George Caram Steeh of the U.S. District Court in Detroit held that the university's requirement that the student be willing to serve people who are homosexual was reasonable, and did not amount to an infringement of the Christian student's constitutional rights to free speech and free expression of religion.
The university "had a right and duty to enforce compliance" with professional ethics rules barring counselors from being intolerant or engaging in discrimination, and no reasonable person could conclude that a counseling program's requirement that students comply with such rules "conveys a message endorsing or disapproving of religion," Judge Steeh wrote.
The Alliance Defense Fund, a coalition of Christian lawyers that is helping to represent the student, Julea Ward, issued a statement on Tuesday saying it plans to appeal the judge's decision.
"Christian students shouldn't be expelled for holding to and abiding by their beliefs," said David French, a senior counsel for the group, which helped out in a similar lawsuit filed against Augusta State University, in Georgia, this month.
Ms. Ward, who entered the Eastern Michigan program in 2006 in hopes of becoming a high-school counselor, had not been disciplined in any way for expressing her views, in classroom discussions or in written course work, that homosexuality was morally wrong. In fact, she had received A's in all of her classes, the judge's summary of her case said.
Her opposition to homosexuality got her into trouble, however, when she enrolled last year in a practicum course that involved counseling real clients in a university-operated clinic. When she encountered a client who wanted to be treated for depression—but previously had been counseled about a homosexual relationship—she asked her faculty supervisor whether she could refer the client to another counselor, explaining that her religious views precluded her from doing anything to affirm the client's homosexual behavior.
To maintain accreditation through the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs, the program that Ms. Ward was in is required to familiarize its students with the ethics codes set forth by the American Counseling Association and the American School Counselor Association. In refusing to affirm the homosexual behavior of clients, Ms. Ward was accused of violating various provisions of the groups' ethics codes, including prohibitions against discrimination based on sexual orientation and an American Counseling Association rule holding that its members should not demonstrate "an inability to tolerate different points of view."
The faculty members overseeing the counseling program offered Ms. Ward three options—voluntarily leaving the counseling program, completing a remediation plan intended to change her thinking about the issue, or requesting a formal hearing. She opted for the hearing, which was held in March 2009 by a panel consisting of five faculty members and a student representative.
At the hearing, Ms. Ward said she refused to affirm any behavior that "goes against what the Bible says" and that she disagreed with, but did not plan to violate, the American Counseling Association's prohibition against therapy aimed at changing a homosexual person's sexual orientation. Afterward, the hearing panel unanimously recommended that she be dismissed from the counseling program. She responded by suing.
Along with her First Amendment claims, Ms. Ward's lawsuit alleged that the university had engaged in viewpoint discrimination and violated her Fourteenth Amendment rights to due process and equal protection. It also argued that the policy cited in dismissing her amounted to an unconstitutional speech code.
Judge Steeh's ruling held that the policy at issue was not a speech code but "an integral part of the curriculum," and that Ms. Ward's dismissal from the program "was entirely due" to her "refusal to change her behavior," rather than her beliefs.
The ruling said that "instead of exploring options that might allow her to counsel homosexuals about their relationships," Ms. Ward "stated that she would not engage in gay-affirming counseling, which she viewed as helping a homosexual client engage in an immoral lifestyle."
The ruling said, "Her refusal to attempt learning to counsel all clients within their own value systems is a failure to complete an academic requirement of the program."