DETROIT -- An Eastern Michigan University student who was expelled from a counseling program because she refused to counsel gays and lesbians about their lifestyles won a key victory Friday in the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals.
A three-member panel of the court said Julea Ward can argue her religious discrimination suit against the university before a federal court jury in Detroit.
"Ward's free speech claim deserves to go to a jury," Judge Jeffrey Sutton said in an opinion joined by Julia Gibbons and John Adams. Adams is a federal district judge from northern Ohio who was sitting by designation on the appeals court.
"Although the university submits it dismissed Ward from the program because her request for a referral violated the ACA (American Counseling Association) code of ethics, a reasonable jury could find otherwise -- that the code of ethics contains no such bar and that the university deployed it as a pretext for punishing Ward's religious views and speech."
Ward's lawyers at the Alliance Defense Fund, a faith-based legal group, hailed the decision.
"Public universities shouldn't force students to violate their religious beliefs to get a degree," said the Alliance's Jeremy Tedesco, the lawyer who argued the case. "The court rightly understood this and ruled appropriately. Rather than allow Julea to refer a potential client to another qualified counselor -- a common, professional practice to best serve clients -- EMU attacked and questioned Julea's religious beliefs and ultimately expelled her from the program because of them."
Eastern Michigan University cautioned in a statement Friday that the 6th Circuit made no legal findings against the school, did not rule that the university engaged in discrimination and did not rule in Ward's favor in the suit.
"Rather, the Sixth Circuit Court ruled that there needs to be additional legal proceedings before a decision can be reached," EMU Vice President for Communications Walter Kraft said. "The Court also found that the Regents and the President of Eastern Michigan University were properly dismissed from the lawsuit and refused to reinstate them despite Ward's request."
Kraft added: "This case has never been about religion or religious discrimination. It is not about homosexuality or sexual orientation. This case is about what is in the best interest of a person who is in need of counseling, and following the curricular requirements of our highly respected and nationally accredited counseling program, which adheres to the Code of Ethics of the American Counseling Association and the Ethical Standards of the American School Counselor Association. Those Ethical Standards require that counselors are not to allow their personal values to intrude into their professional work."
The ACLU of Michigan, which filed a court brief supporting the university, said: "While no public university can discipline any student because of her beliefs, universities have a right to insist that their graduate students adhere to accepted standards of professionalism and place the needs of their clients first."
The case now goes back to U.S. District Judge George Steeh in Detroit, who ruled in favor of the university in 2010.
The case was closely watched by Christian-rights, gay and lesbian and academic-rights groups. Several Michigan universities filed briefs in support of EMU, saying schools should have the right to set their curriculum and students should be required to follow them.
Although Ward refused to counsel gays and lesbians about their sexual orientation, she said she was willing to counsel them on other issues
(Staff writer David Jesse contributed to this report.)
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