The Progressive


A project of Common Dreams

For Immediate Release

Joe Conn, Rob Boston or Sandhya Bathija
202.466.2587 fax

Public University Is Not Required to Alter Counseling Program to Meet Student's Religious Demands, Says Americans United

Church-State Watchdog Group Says Michigan School May Enforce Non-Discrimination Policy


A public university does not have to accommodate a student in a counseling program who refuses to help clients who are in romantic relationships that contradict her religious beliefs, Americans United for Separation of Church and State has told a federal appeals court.

Americans United filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Feb. 11 on behalf of Eastern Michigan University, arguing that the Constitution permits the university to dismiss a student from its graduate program for refusing to counsel a gay client as part of an advanced course.

"Public universities are expected to serve the whole community," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director. "They have every right to set up non-discrimination policies that serve the public interest.

"Professional ethics standards forbid counselors to discriminate on the basis of their personal religious beliefs," Lynn continued. "The university has done the right thing by requiring its students to uphold those standards and treat all clients fairly and equally. We hope the appeals court agrees."

Julea Ward, a self-described "orthodox Christian," filed a lawsuit against the university, alleging that school officials violated her free speech and religious liberty rights. Represented by the Alliance Defense Fund, she claims she cannot "affirm any behavior that goes against what the Bible says" and would always refer to other counselors "all clients who seek counseling for sexual relationship issues she believes to be against the teachings of the Bible."

A lower federal court ruled in favor of the university in July 2010. The court upheld the university's right to adhere to the American Counseling Association Code of Ethics and Standards of Practice and the American School Counselor Association Ethical Standards for School Counselors.

These standards, which all accredited counseling programs must adhere to, prohibit "imposing values that are inconsistent with counseling goals" and "discrimination based on...sexual orientation." So-called "reparative therapy," which seeks to change an individual's sexual orientation," is regarded as ineffective and potentially harmful.

During a formal university hearing over this matter, Ward admitted she disagreed with the standards and would not be willing to follow them when they contradicted her religious beliefs.

Americans United's brief asserts that Ward's religious liberty and free speech rights were not violated by the university. Ward, as a professional degree student, was counseling university clients under a university professor's license, and therefore was acting as an employee of the public university, AU's brief states.

The Constitution, says Americans United, prohibits government employees acting in their official duties from imposing religious beliefs on others.

"The First Amendment does not prevent states from promoting a client's needs over his provider's religious agenda; a public-university counseling program may train its students to practice accordingly," asserts AU's brief.

Explained the AU brief, "A university would not be required to graduate a Jehovah's Witness whose religious views prevented him from providing his clinical patients with necessary blood transfusions - even if he aced his written anatomy exam. Likewise, the University was entitled to expel [Ward] because her religious views prevented her from counseling clinical patients who wanted to discuss non-marital sex - no matter how sophisticated her work in the classroom."

Americans United's brief in Ward v. Wilbanks et. al. was drafted by AU Litigation Counsel Gregory M. Lipper and AU Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan.

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.