Julea Ward was dismissed from a counseling program at Eastern Michigan University in 2009 after she refused to counsel a gay student based on her Christian religious beliefs and, according to school officials, declined to work with the university to resolve the issue.
Michigan's House passed a bill Tuesday that would prohibit the state's public universities from taking such action in the future. The bill HB 5040 is being called the "Julea Ward freedom of conscience act" in honor of Ward.
It would forbid public colleges and universities from discriminating against or disciplining students participating in counseling, social work and psychology programs "because the student refuses to counsel or serve a client as to goals, outcomes, or behaviors that conflict with a sincerely held religious belief of the student, if the student refers the client to a counselor who will provide the counseling or services."
While the legislation has gained the support of the Michigan Family Forum and the state's Attorney General, it has also attracted a diverse coalition opposing the bill. Equality Michigan, an LGBT group said on their website that the bill "threatens clients seeking counseling with rejection based on their race, relationship status, and faith, or, yes, because of their sexual orientation" and "sends the message that medical decisions can be based on religious and personal beliefs and not on what’s in the best interest of the patient."
The legislation also has also come under fire from a variety of organizations. The American Civil Liberties Union, The National Organization for Women and state educational institutions and professional groups including The Michigan School of Professional Psychology, the Michigan School Counselor Association, the Michigan Counseling Association, the Council on Social Work Education, the National Association of Social Workers and the Michigan Association of Social, the Presidents' Council of Public Universities of Michigan and Western Michigan University all oppose the measure.
Leigh Greden, director of government and community relations for EMU said the bill would jeopardize the the accreditation of several of Michigan's premier academic institutions, including EMU. An accreditation is special approval given to a learning institution when that school meets certain requirements.
At the time of her dismissal, Ward was participating in a masters degree practicum program in school counseling that was certified by the American Counseling Association. The program requires students to abide by the organization's Code of Ethics, which does not allow practitioners to refuse counsel based on a client's sexual orientation.
Ward sued EMU in 2009, charging that the school violated her constitutional rights. Although she initially lost the case in federal court, she appealed the case with help of attorneys from the Alliance Defense Fund and won a ruling from the U.S. Sixth District Court of Appeals. According to AnnArbor.com, it ruled that a jury might have viewed the university use of the code of ethics "as a pretext for punishing Ward's religious views and speech," and motioned for a retrial with a jury in a lower court.
Greden maintains the university's decision to dismiss Ward from the program was simply a matter of school policy.
"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," said Greden.
"If this case was about religion and EMU was engaged in discrimination, clearly she wouldn't have done so well in our program," he said to The Huffington Post, noting that Ward was an 'A' student. "She only encountered a problem when she said she wouldn't counsel a client."
Jeremy Tedesco, a lawyer for the Alliance Defense Fund, disputes EMU's claims the bill could cause the university to lose its accreditation. He told AnnArbor.com the ACA code of ethics allows for counselor's to make referrals, as Ward did during her practicum -- an argument the ACA's Chief Professional Officer David Kaplan contradicted in written court testimony.
Tedesco said he was happy to hear the news of the state House's recent vote.
"We're encouraged that the elected representatives of Michigan have taken a concern in this case and decided to act," he told AnnArbor.com.
HB 5040 passed the House 59-50 and will now go before the Senate.
Flickr photo by agent_mikejohnson