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ADF and ACLU Spar in Julea Ward Free Speech Rights Case

By Robyn Hagan Cain on October 07, 2011 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Do First Amendment free speech rights cover a counseling student’s right to refuse to speak to someone?

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments this week in a former Eastern Michigan University (EMU) graduate student’s lawsuit challenging her dismissal from the school’s graduate counseling program.

Julea Ward enrolled in the EMU program in 2006 to become a high school counselor. In 2009, she declined to counsel a homosexual client during her school practicum because her “Christian beliefs would not allow her to affirm the client’s homosexual behavior,” according to the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), which is representing Ward.

Consistent with EMU policy, Ward asked for the client to be reassigned to a different counseling student. Following a discussion with her adviser and a formal review hearing about the conflict, Ward was dismissed from the EMU program.

EMU contends that Ward's refusal to counsel the client violated the American Counseling Association's Code of Ethics. Ward claims the dismissal violates her First Amendment free speech rights.

According to Ward's complaint, EMU counseling faculty, without exception, stated that student counselors were expected to affirm or validate a client's homosexual behavior during practicum counseling. Students were also prohibited from counseling such clients that they could change their homosexual behavior (for example, by refraining from engaging in homosexual sex).

Ward says that, by policy and practice, EMU imposed unconstitutional conditions on her free speech rights.

A federal district court dismissed Ward's case last year, reports The Wall Street Journal. Now that the case is in the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, additional parties, like the American Civil Liberties Union, are getting involved.

The ACLU filed an amicus brief in support of EMU, stating, "there is nothing surprising or illegitimate about a graduate school's desire to train its professional students in accordance with the ethical rules of the profession they are about to enter."

Both the ACLU and the ADF make interesting arguments in their briefs; while the ACLU is not an actual party to this claim, we're curious to see which of these legal powerhouses the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals sides with in this First Amendment free speech case.

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