Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Court Upholds Dismissal of Counseling Student Who Would Not Counsel Gays

In Ward v. Wilbanks, (ED MI, July 26 2010), a Michigan federal district court upheld Eastern Michigan University's dismissal of a student from its graduate program in counseling because of her objections to counseling clients on their same-sex relationships, in violation of professional counseling standards. Julea Ward's Christian beliefs precluded her from affirming relationships which she believed were inconsistent with Biblical teachings. The court concluded that the university's policy is not a speech code, but is an integral part of the curriculum. It held that in a university setting, restricting or compelling speech that occurs in a classroom as part of the curriculum will be upheld so long as it serves a rational pedagogical purpose. According to the court:
The University had a rational basis for adopting the ACA Code of Ethics into its counseling program, not the least of which was the desire to offer an accredited program. Furthermore, the University had a rational basis for requiring its students to counsel clients without imposing their personal values. In the case of Ms. Ward, the University determined that she would never change her behavior and would consistently refuse to counsel clients on matters with which she was personally opposed due to her religious beliefs - including homosexual relationships. The University offered Ms. Ward the opportunity for a remediation plan, which she rejected. Her refusal to attempt learning to counsel all clients within their own value systems is a failure to complete an academic requirement of the program.
Additionally, the court rejected Ward's free exercise and Establishment Clause claims:
Plaintiff was not required to change her views or religious beliefs; she was required to set them aside in the counselor-client relationship – a neutral, generally applicable expectation of all counselors-to-be under the ACA standard.
It concluded that the program requirements were secular in purpose and effect and did not involve excessive entanglement. It went on:
Although plaintiff’s complaint that defendants demonstrated hostility, arrogance, and offensiveness during the formal and informal reviews is well taken, the court finds that neither this behavior nor the curriculum requirements satisfy the level of hostility required to establish a religion of secularism....
Finally the court rejected plaintiff's equal protection claim:
Both sides’ positions eventually hardened due to the confrontational atmosphere, culminating in the “theological bout” during the formal hearing. Nevertheless, the court does not perceive any maliciousness in defendants’ behavior amounting to a constitutional violation.
Alliance Defense Fund which represented the student said in a release yesterday that it would appeal the decision. (See prior related posting.) Today's Inside Higher Ed reports on the decision.