A former student and counselor is suing Eastern Michigan University claiming she was wrongfully dismissed for turning down a gay student who wanted help.
The federal court lawsuit in Detroit is being watched across the US as a signifier of the battle between religious and gay freedoms.
Julea Ward was on a master’s degree counseling program and just a few classes short of a degree with a high grade-point average.
But then she was assigned a student who had previously been counseled about a gay relationship.
Jeremy Tedesco, Ward’s attorney, who has advised his client not to speak publicly about the case said: ‘She went to her supervisor and said, “I may not be the best person for this particular client”.’
She claims that she referred the student to another counselor out of respect for her religious beliefs having told the professors that her Christian faith prohibited her from affirming homosexual behavior.
The school, however, disagreed and state that she was fired for not following the American Counseling Association’s (ACA) code of ethics, which the university’s counseling program follows.
The case had been originally dismissed in the lower courts by Judge George Steeh when it was heard in 2009 in a summary judgment.
Ward and her attorneys, the Alliance Defense Fund, a legal organization for religious college students and faculty, appealed to the US Court of Appeals for the Sixth District.
A three-judge panel of the court in January ruled that a jury could conclude the university had used the code of ethics ‘as a pretext for punishing Ward’s religious views and speech’.
The university however denied any bias.
Lawyers argued in US District Court this week several motions in advance of a jury trial about who should get to testify in the case, the Free Press reported.
Tedesco of the Alliance Defence Fund argued the two experts on the ACA code of ethics should not be allowed to testify because that the appellate court decided Ward had not violated the ACA code, and therefore the two experts would be talking about something that was not at issue.
East Michigan University’s (EMU) attorney Richard Seryak contended that all the appeals court did was to send the whole case back for a jury trial and so there was no limit put on the discussion of the ethical code.
The judge sided with the EMU.
Ward did not attend the hearing.
Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette has also weighed in with a brief supporting Ward.
Now both sides are preparing for a jury trial that begins on 15 October in the US District Court.
Previously Republican lawmakers in Michigan had tried unsuccessfully to pass a law banning colleges and universities from discriminating against counseling students on the basis of religious beliefs.
The majority of Michigan’s public universities filed briefs in support of EMU, stating that the case raised issues of academic freedom and a university’s ability to set its curriculum.
The American Civil Liberties Union the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network and the Parents, Families, Friends of Lesbian and Gays also supported EMU.
The American Center for Law and Justice, the Beckett Fund for Religious Liberty the Justice the Foundation for Moral Law and Freedom Fund, and filed in support of Ward.
The lawsuit drew considerable attention the first go-around.
Michigan’s House had previously passed a bill on 12 June 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.
The Huff Post Detroit reported this bill 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.’
You can see Ward’s own campaign video here: