Religious Freedom or Government-Sanctioned Discrimination? Julea Ward vs. Eastern Michigan University
n 2006 Julea Ward, a suburban Detroit high school teacher, enrolled in a master’s program at Eastern Michigan University (EMU) with the goal of becoming a high school counselor. Although she performed well academically (maintaining a 3.91 GPA), from the start her unyielding religious views made her something of a problem student. An evangelical Christian, Ward would frequently butt heads with her professors about how her faith made it impossible for her to validate—or, in professional parlance, “affirm”—homosexual relationships, as well as heterosexual relations outside marriage. In this context, she was repeatedly reminded of the university’s anti-discrimination policy and the need to respect the sexual orientation and lifestyle of everyone she worked with.
During her final year, 2009, in her required practicum Ward was assigned a student for counseling. Reviewing his file just two hours before their scheduled meeting and noting his same-sex orientation, she called her faculty supervisor and requested that this student either be immediately referred to another counselor or that she begin counseling him but make a referral if he brought up any relationship issues. The faculty supervisor canceled the session and reassigned the student but also proceeded to set up an informal disciplinary hearing to deal with Ward’s unorthodox request, unprecedented in her twenty years of teaching and which she saw as creating an “ethical dilemma.” Counselors in training were expected to work with clients from a wide range of backgrounds and holding a broad array of views. Ward’s position, here and earlier, evidenced an inability—or unwillingness—to tolerate sexual orientations and preferences different from her own.
In the meeting that followed, which also included Ward’s academic supervisor, Ward reiterated her position that she couldn’t, in good religious conscience, “affirm” a same-sex relationship—a term that, it should be emphasized, does not mean to endorse or agree with, but rather to support or uphold the validity of. At one point her faculty supervisor gave her two options: voluntarily withdraw from the program, since she couldn’t agree to abide by EMU’s counseling guidelines—in line with those of the American Counseling Association (ACA); or request a formal review from a committee made up of three faculty members and one student representative to further evaluate the charge of improper behavior. Ward opted for the latter.