Court sides with Christian counseling student

Baptist Press
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Posted: Jan 30, 2012 5:22 PM
Court sides with Christian counseling student
CINCINNATI (BP) -- A federal appeals court has delivered at least a temporary victory for religious freedom and free speech in the confrontation between Christian counseling students and university programs that affirm homosexuality.

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Jan. 27 in favor of an Eastern Michigan University (EMU) graduate student who declined to affirm the "sexual orientation" of homosexual clients because of her religious beliefs. As a result of her refusal, the university expelled Julea Ward from the counseling program in 2009.

A three-judge panel of the Sixth Circuit unanimously overturned a federal court's summary judgment in favor of the school. 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 EMU violated her "religious views and speech." The panel did not say Ward should win, only that the case should receive a trial under its ruling.

Advocates for religious freedom and free speech commended the decision.

"Public universities shouldn't force students to violate their religious beliefs to get a degree. The court rightly understood this and ruled appropriately," said Jeremy Tedesco, legal counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund. Tedesco argued for Ward before the court.

Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, said the ruling "marks an important step in defending the religious and intellectual freedoms of Americans."

The decision followed by six weeks a federal appeals court decision that went against another Christian counseling student at a public university. A three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit refused Dec. 16 to issue a court order requested by Jennifer Keeton to prevent Augusta (Ga.) State University from dismissing her from its counseling program.

In issuing its opinion in Ward v. Polite, the Sixth Circuit panel said there were factual differences between the two cases.

Ward had only four classes remaining at EMU when she entered 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."

The Sixth Circuit panel said Ward's case differs from Keeton's in the 11th Circuit for a couple of reasons, including the fact Keeton "insisted on a constitutional right to engage in conversion therapy" -- in other words, the ability to tell a client his homosexuality is "morally wrong" and to seek to change his behavior. "Instead of insisting on changing her clients, Ward asked only that the university not change her," allowing her to make referrals sometimes, the court said.

Compiled by Tom Strode, Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press.

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