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January 30, 2012
Sixth Circuit Rules In Religious Discrimination Claim Over Counseling Gay Clients In University Program
There is an interesting case out of the Sixth Circuit where a graduate counseling student is challenging her dismissal from Eastern Michigan University. Julea Ward claimed her religious beliefs conflicted with certain aspects of counseling gay and lesbian clients, and when placed in that situation during her practicum, she requested that the client be given a referral. The faculty member advising with Ward granted her request but was disturbed enough by it to convene an informal hearing on what had happened. Circumstances developed into a more formal hearing setting where Ward was dismissed from the program.
The University based the decision on the violation of provisions of the American Counseling Association Code of Ethics which is incorporated in the Student Handbook. The two provisions cited by the University forbid the imposition of values inconsistent with counseling goals and engaging in discrimination based on sexual orientation. Ward sued, claiming she was dismissed from the program because of her religious beliefs. The District Court granted the University summary judgment.
On appeal, the Sixth Circuit reversed. The Court considered basic First Amendment law as applied to education and concluded that educational institutions, including universities, have great leeway in controlling speech in regard to furthering pedagogical goals. Some of the commentary to this decision notes that the Court relied on precedent developed in a high school setting. The Court nonetheless stated that the logic of the precedent apply to students rather than the type of program.
An examination of the limited record showed that the ACA Code of Ethics contemplated counselors referring clients in circumstances where conflicts would arise, including a clash of values between counselor and client. The University seemed to ignore this provision at Ward’s hearing. Moreover, the University’s no referral policy seems to have been created after the fact to justify its decision. At least there is no documentation that provided notice to Ward of such a policy, one which the University violated by actually allowing the referral. The Court stated that the University could possibly win at trial with a chance to make its case to the jury depending on the evidence both side presented. In any event, the case as it existed could not be decided on summary judgment motions.
The case is Ward v. Polite, et al. (10-2100/2145) decided January 27, 2012. [MG]