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Ward v. Wilbanks et al.

Location: Michigan
Last Update: October 4, 2011

What's at Stake

A student in a counseling program claims a right to discriminate against clients who wish to discuss same-sex relationships on the grounds that it violates her religious beliefs.

After Julea Ward, a graduate student at Eastern Michigan State University enrolled in the school counseling program, refused to work with a gay client, she was dismissed from the program for failing to adhere to the American Counseling Association’s Code of Ethics, which the university’s counseling program follows. A would-be high school counselor, Ward claimed that because of her religious beliefs, she had a right to refuse to counsel any clients who wished to discuss same-sex relationships or unmarried sexual relationships – regardless of the harm such discrimination could cause to clients who came to her for counseling.

The Code of Ethics of Ward’s intended profession states that counselors must avoid imposing their values on clients, and that counselors may not discriminate based on sexual orientation. As a prospective school counselor, Ward’s refusal to work with gay clients would be particularly problematic. LGBT students are vulnerable to harassment, depression, and even suicide. School counselors are important sources of support for such students – in one study, 42% of gay and lesbian high school students sought help from a school counselor. Being rejected by a counselor who should provide support could cause great harm to a student struggling with issues related to his or her sexuality.

A lower court upheld Ward’s dismissal from the program. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a decision holding that there were factual disputes about whether the student was indeed dismissed because of her failure to comply with the code of ethics, and the case was remanded to the Eastern District of Michigan. The ACLU and the ACLU of Michigan filed a friend-of-the court brief supporting the university.

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