A jury trial has been set for a former Eastern Michigan University student who was expelled after refusing to attend homosexual sensitivity training when she declined to counsel a fellow student that was a homosexual.
According to reports, Julea Ward, a high school teacher, was enrolled in the university’s counseling program in 2009 and was just a few courses short of obtaining her third master’s degree when she found herself in a conflict. She had just begun her practicum, a time when she could have first hand experience in counseling while being supervised by one of her professors.
Before meeting her first client, she found out that the session would involve an individual that was seeking advice regarding their homosexual relationship. Ward contacted her adviser and explained that as a Christian, she could not condone homosexual behavior. She then was encouraged to have the clinic assign the session to another counselor.
However, soon afterward, Ward’s adviser used the situation against her.
“The following week, I was told that she would be scheduling an informal review because out of all of the years she had been teaching, she had never encountered somebody that refused to counsel homosexuals,” Ward explained. “I had never refused to counsel homosexuals; I had just simply refused to affirm their lifestyle.”
Therefore, Ward appeared before a small group of university professors who questioned her about her faith.
“They kinda went over with me my position, which was the fact that I could not affirm homosexuality because of my relationship with Christ,” she said. “They went on to say that because of my stance, I was in violation of the Code of Ethics, and that I had three options that I could choose.”
Those options were that Ward either undergo homosexual sensitivity training and amend her ways, face a formal review by the university or leave the program and forfeit her degree. She chose the formal review.
“I thought that perhaps at the formal review hearing there would be some understanding, and there would be some tolerance,” Ward explained. “But, I was met with more intolerance.”
As Ward stood before a panel of three university professors during the formal review, she was questioned about her beliefs, including whether she felt that her “brand” of Christianity was superior to others who profess to be Christians but are accepting of the homosexual lifestyle.
“You’re asking me to sell out God,” she told the panel, who informed her that they would release a decision within a week.
Several days later, Ward received a letter stating that the university had unanimously decided to expel her from the counseling program, which would mean that she would not be able to receive her Master’s degree.
She then filed a federal lawsuit against Eastern Michigan University, but U.S. District Judge George Steeh dismissed the suit in summary judgment.
Upon appeal to the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, the court reversed Steeh’s decision, stating that Ward’s case had a right to be heard. The three-judge panel opined that the university may have used its Code of Ethics “as a pretext for punishing Ward’s religious views and speech.”
“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 ruling outlined. “Why treat Ward differently? 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.”
Earlier this week, a hearing was held regarding the scheduling of her jury trial, where selected persons will decide whether Ward’s rights were indeed violated in being expelled from Eastern Michigan University’s counseling program.
Ward says that she is thankful that the case is moving forward because she feels that it is important for all Christians.
“I look at this as something that is not going to go away as there may be other students that may encounter the same problem,” she said. “And it’s not fair for them to have to go through the same thing that I did.”
Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) has been handling Ward’s case, and the American Center for Law and Justice, the Foundation for Moral Law, the Justice and Freedom Fund and the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty have all filed Amicus briefs of support.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the organizations Gay, Lesbian and Straight Network Education and the Friends of Lesbians and Gays have filed briefs on behalf of Eastern Michigan University.
The school stands behind its belief that Ward violated the established Code of Ethics, and therefore, her dismissal was appropriate.
“The underlying lawsuit is not about religion and not about homosexuality. It’s about the right of university to insist that their students complete their academic assignments,” Leigh Greden, director of government and community relations for Eastern Michigan told the Huffington Post. “If this case was about religion and EMU was engaged in discrimination, clearly she wouldn’t have done so well in our program. She only encountered a problem when she said she wouldn’t counsel a client.”
The jury will hear Ward’s case early next month.
In June of this year, the Michigan state House of Representatives passed the “Julea Ward Freedom of Conscience Act,” which would protect students and others who decline business services due to their faith. The bill is now before the Senate, but is not yet scheduled for a vote.