David Cortman

In January 2009, Julea Ward, who is a Christian, was a graduate student in the counseling program at Eastern Michigan University. She was nearing the end of the program and had accumulated a 3.91 GPA. Then she was expelled.

Why? Well, EMU asked her to counsel a client in a manner that would have violated her Biblically-based faith and values. Following standard profession practice, she asked her supervising professor whether it would be okay to reassign the client to a different counselor. EMU expelled her from the program for making this simple referral request, and because of the religious beliefs that motivated it.

Unfortunately, media reports on Ward’s lawsuit often claim that EMU expelled her for refusing to counsel gay clients. This is simply untrue. She asked for the referral because her religious beliefs prevent her from providing counseling on any non-marital sexual relationship. This means Ward would raise the same values conflict regardless of the sexual orientation of the client seeking such assistance.

Put simply, Ward would raise the same conflict and seek a referral regardless of whether the client was homosexual and seeking counseling on a non-marital sexual relationship (which is the context in which her referral request arose) or if the client was heterosexual and seeking counseling on a non-marital sexual relationship. The “gay animus” angle often seen in media reports is dead wrong.

It is also important to note that referrals, including those based on values conflicts, are common and accepted in the counseling profession. The code of ethics for the profession contains two provisions endorsing the practice of referring clients. Ward acted consistent with these provisions, and with the advice of her supervising professor, by having a client reassigned in a situation where she believed another counselor would be better suited to meet his needs. The profession is, after all, most concerned with serving the best interests of clients. And sometimes, a client’s best interests are served by working with a different counselor.

Rather than approving Ward’s simple request to refer a single client, EMU initiated disciplinary proceedings against her. EMU also informed Ward that the only way she could remain in the counseling program was if she agreed to undergo a “remediation” program aimed at changing her “belief system.”

David Cortman

David Cortman serves as senior legal counsel with the Alliance Defense Fund at its Atlanta Regional Service Center in Georgia, where he heads litigation efforts to defend and reclaim the First Amendment rights of public school students across the nation. Cortman joined ADF in 2005, and is admitted to the bar in Georgia, Florida, and the District of Columbia. He has practiced law since 1996 and graduated magna cum laude from the Regent University School of Law, where he earned his J.D.