Attorneys of the Alliance Defence Fund (ADF) are preparing to appeal a federal judge's decision that a Christian student's beliefs about homosexuality were an acceptable grounds for her dismissal from a graduate program in counseling at Eastern Michigan University.
Julea Ward enrolled in the university's counseling practicum course in January 2009, and was assigned to a client who sought assistance with a homosexual relationship. Ward considered herself unable to assist the client under the circumstances, due to her own moral and religious beliefs, and was advised by her supervisor to reassign the client.
Eastern Michigan University, however, responded to the situation by initiating disciplinary procedures against Ward, involving a “remediation” program. According to ADF, the “remediation” amounted to an ultimatum: Ward would either “see the error of her ways” and change her beliefs about sexual morality in order to encourage her clients in same-sex relationships, or be dismissed from the counseling program.
The university argued that she broke both school policy and the American Counseling Association code of ethics.
But Ward maintained that faculty members questioned her in an “inappropriate and intrusive” manner regarding her Christian faith before formally expelling her from the program. She appealed to the dean of EMU's College of Education, who upheld the decision. In April 2009, with the assistance of ADF, she brought a lawsuit against the university.
In March of this year, a district court in Michigan ruled that those professors responsible for Ward's expulsion could be held liable for discriminatory actions against her. This week, however, the court issued a summary judgment in favor of the EMU professors.
ADF maintains that the university's policy is both personally discriminatory and legally unconstitutional. The professors' real aim, they say, was “to make all students conform to the views promoted within their schools” on “some of the most important and controversial social and moral issues of our day.”
David French, senior counsel for the ADF's regional center in Tennessee and an attorney for Julea Ward, said that the academic freedom and constitutional rights of his client and others were at risk in the wake of Monday's decision. “Christian students,” he said, “shouldn't be expelled for holding to and abiding by their beliefs.”
French also stressed the unprecedented nature of the court's summary judgment. “To reach its decision, the court had to do something that's never been done in federal court: uphold an extremely broad and vague university speech code.”
Additionally, he pointed out that Ms. Ward had not personally refused the client her assistance, but merely followed the advice of her supervisor as to how her dilemma should be resolved.
Declaring his intention to move forward with an appeal, Mr. French expressed his confidence on Tuesday that his client would be vindicated. “We trust,” he said, that “the Sixth Circuit will understand the constitutional issues involved in this case.”