Eastern Michigan University has agreed to settle a former graduate student's lawsuit accusing its officials of violating her constitutional rights by dismissing her from its counseling program. A federal appeals court in January ordered the university to defend itself against charges that it had kicked Julea Ward out of its master's program because, for religious reasons, she wanted to refer gay clients to others, rather than counsel them herself.
The university had asserted its right to enforce its department's requirements -- based on outside groups' ethics codes -- that students counsel all clients in affirming, nonjudgmental ways.
As is commonly the case in such settlements, this one left both sides claiming victory.
Alliance Defending Freedom, which represented Ward, cited the university's $75,000 payment to Ward and the fact that it will, going forward, say that she left the program voluntarily as evidence that she had been "vindicated."
"Besides that great settlement for Julea personally, we also got published decisions that put universities on notice that they need to tread very lightly in this area in the future," said Jeremy Tedesco, a lawyer for the alliance.
Eastern Michigan officials said that they had settled the case to avoid a long, costly legal fight, and noted that the agreement clearly stipulated that the institution had not ceded any authority.
"The resolution of the lawsuit leaves the university's policies, programs, and curricular requirements intact," Walter Kraft, Eastern Michigan's vice president for communications, said via e-mail. "Our faculty retains its right to establish, in its learned judgment, the curriculum and program requirements for the counseling program."
A federal judge in 2010 upheld Eastern Michigan's authority to expel Ward from its counseling program, saying that the university had not impaired her religious and free speech rights by trying to compel its graduate students in counseling to learn to work with all kinds of clients in ways that did not judge their values or orientations. Ward, who describes herself as an Orthodox Christian, had, as a student in a practicum in 2009, sought to refer a client who had had gay relationships to another counselor rather than engage in any counseling that could "affirm the client's homosexual behavior."
Eastern Michigan officials, citing curricular standards based on the ethics code of the American Counseling Association, said that she could not remain in the program if she refused to counsel people whose choices and views she disagreed with.
Last January, though, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit revived her lawsuit, saying that a jury might reasonably conclude that Eastern Michigan was using its policies as a pretext for discriminating against Ward for her religious views. The appeals court decision stated that the university did not have a written "no referrals" policy, and that the hearing Eastern Michigan conducted to decide whether to expel Ward was "not a model of dispassion," and featured questions about her religious views with regard to gay people.
Tedesco, the lawyer for Alliance Defending Freedom, said he believed the Sixth Circuit's ruling -- and Eastern Michigan's decision not to contest it -- clearly signaled that “public universities shouldn’t force students to violate their religious beliefs to get a degree."
And while some university officials had hoped that Eastern Michigan would challenge the appeals court's ruling (which clashes in some ways with a parallel case in the 11th Circuit), some legal experts said they did not believe the Ward case undermined universities' authority to require students to abide by rules that clash with their religious beliefs, "as long as such requirements are adopted in good faith and applied consistently," as Steve Sanders, a visiting assistant professor of law at the University of Michigan, put it.
But Sanders said that it was "harder to know" whether faculty members in similar situations in the future "will feel the need to compromise educational policies or give special accommodations to students based on religious beliefs simply out of fear of litigation, even when the policies are educationally necessary and applied fairly. "
He added: "It's always hard to know what psychological effect a decision like the one from the Sixth Circuit, coupled with the settlement, will have on future conduct by faculty and universities."