Student booted from EMU wins appeal in lawsuit

YPSILANTI (AP) -- A federal appeals court last Friday revived a lawsuit filed by a woman who contends she was kicked out of a master's degree program at Eastern Michigan University because of her opposition to homosexuality.

The decision means Julea Ward's lawsuit against school officials will return to federal district court in Detroit, where a judge threw out the case in 2010.

Ward was in a counseling program at the university when she asked her superiors to refer a gay client to someone else. She says she told professors that her Christian faith prohibited her from affirming homosexual behavior.

The university expelled Ward from the program, although she was just a few classes short of a degree and had a high grade-point average.

In its opinion, a three-judge panel with the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati said a reasonable jury could conclude that Ward was punished because of her beliefs, although the university denied any bias.

Ward's academic supervisor told her she had violated the American Counseling Association's code of ethics by "imposing values that are inconsistent with counseling goals" and by practicing discrimination based on sexual orientation, the opinion said.

But the judges said Ward had requested the change to avoid imposing her beliefs on gay and lesbian clients and noted that the ACA's ethics code allows counselors to refer clients elsewhere based on values.

University officials said such referrals were not permitted in the class Ward was taking, but the judges said that policy wasn't spelled out in course materials.

"A university cannot compel a student to alter or violate her belief systems based on a phantom policy as the price for obtaining a degree," the opinion said.

The American Civil Liberties Union said the judges failed to acknowledge that referring a gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender client to another counselor could damage the client's mental health.

"While no public university can discipline any student because of her beliefs, universities have a right to insist that their graduate students adhere to accepted standards of professionalism and place the needs of their clients first," said Jay Kaplan, an ACLU attorney.

Jeremy Tedesco of the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian group that focuses on religious liberty issues and is representing Ward, said the ruling was appropriate. The university "attacked and questioned (Ward's) religious beliefs and ultimately expelled her from the program because of them," he said.

University spokesman Walter Kraft said the court did not rule against Eastern Michigan but simply ordered the suit to go forward.

He said the issue wasn't homosexuality or religious discrimination, but meeting the best interests of people needing counseling. The profession's ethical standards "require that counselors are not to allow their personal values to intrude into their professional work," he said.

Published: Tue, Jan 31, 2012