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Graduate Student's Lawsuit Against College Pits School Policy Vs. Religious Beliefs

Julea Ward

In July, a federal judge dismissed the lawsuit of Julea Ward, seen here, against Eastern Michigan University (EMU) after the school successfully contended she violated school policy and the American Counseling Association's code of ethics, which forbids counselors from discrimination in clinical practice.Courtesy of Alliance Defense Fund

An attorney for a graduate student claiming she was wrongfully dismissed from her counseling job at a Michigan college because she refused to counsel gay and bisexual clients on their relationships argued in federal court Tuesday that his client was discriminated against because of her religious beliefs -- while the school insists her actions violated school policy.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in Cincinnati heard arguments in the case involving Julea Ward, a Detroit-area public school teacher. In July 2010, a federal judge dismissed Ward's lawsuit against Eastern Michigan University (EMU) after the school successfully contended she violated school policy and the American Counseling Association's code of ethics, which forbids counselors from discrimination in clinical practice.

Following Tuesday's hearing, Jeremy Tedesco, an attorney for the conservative Alliance Defense Fund, said he believes the Appeals Court will overturn the ruling because it violated Ward’s First Amendment rights.

"Ultimately, the university has a really tough battle here," Tedesco told FoxNews.com. "The bottom line to us is that this is very clear violation of her First Amendment rights in a couple of different contexts."

Tedesco argued that Ward's rights were violated when she was required to enter a remediation program to change her beliefs toward homosexuality. He said EMU officials violated the U.S. Constitution when they refused to accommodate Ward's sincerely held beliefs by not allowing her to refer her client to another qualified candidate.

"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," Tedesco said in a statement. He said there is no timetable for the appellate court's decision.

According to ADF attorneys, Ward was assigned a potential client seeking assistance regarding a homosexual relationship shortly after she enrolled in the counseling program in January 2009. Realizing she could not affirm the client's relationship without violating her own religious beliefs, Ward then asked a supervisor for assistance. After being advised to reassign the potential client, EMU officials informed Ward she would need to undergo a "remediation" program in order to stay in the counseling program, the attorneys claim.

Ward was later dismissed from the program, and EMU officials denied her appeal.

"Julea followed accepted professional practice and the advice of her supervising professor when she referred the potential client to someone who had no conscience issue with the subject to be discussed," Tedesco's statement continued. "She would have gladly counseled the client herself had the topic focused on any other matter. Julea was punished for acting professionally and ethically in this situation."

In a statement to FoxNews.com, university officials said they are confident the July 2010 ruling will be upheld.

"This case has never been about religion or religious discrimination," read a statement issued by Walter Kraft, vice president for communications at EMU. "It is not about homosexuality or sexual orientation. This case is about what is in the best interest of a client who is in need of counseling, and following the curricular requirements of our highly-respected and nationally-accredited counseling program ... This case is important to Eastern Michigan, it also is important to universities across the country, as well as to the several universities in Michigan that have filed briefs in support of our position in this case."

In February, the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Michigan filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting EMU.

"Students seeking counseling must be able to trust that they will receive the help they need, free from discrimination," ACLU Deputy Legal Director Louise Melling said in a statement.

"Counselors are entitled to their own religious beliefs, but they do not have a right to discriminate as part of their professional training at a public university."

Michael Steinberg, legal director of the ACLU of Michigan, said public school counselors should not be "able to close the door" to homosexual students looking for guidance.

In a 48-page opinion, U.S. District Judge George Caram Steeh dismissed Ward's lawsuit in July, citing the university's rational basis for adopting the American Counseling Association's code of ethics.

"Furthermore, the university had a rational basis for requiring students to counsel clients without imposing their personal values," Steeh wrote. "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."

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