(CN) - The 6th Circuit revived claims that Eastern Michigan University professors violated free speech by expelling a Christian graduate student who did not want to work with a gay client.
Julea Ward was 13 credits hours away from completing her master's degree in counseling in 2009 when she enrolled in a practicum that required students to provide one-on-one counseling with real clients.
Upon receiving the profile of her third client, a man who sought counseling about a same-sex relationship, Ward, a devout Christian, requested that the client be referred to someone else because "her faith prevented her from affirming a client's same-sex relationships."
Eastern Michigan University teaches students to "affirm" their clients' values during counseling sessions, but Ward often told professors during her three years in the program that her faith prevented her from affirming conduct such as homosexuality or extramarital relationships.
When Ward referred the gay client, her professor called her in for a meeting and subjected her to a formal review in front of several faculty members. Ward filed suit after the faculty committee dismissed her from the program for violations of the ethics code.
The code in question states that "counselors  are aware of their own values, attitudes, beliefs and behaviors and  avoid imposing values that are inconsistent with counseling goals.  Counselors respect the diversity of clients, trainees and research participants."
A federal judge in Detroit dismissed the case on summary judgment, finding that the teachers enforced a neutral curricular requirement against Ward and did not target her because of her speech or religious beliefs.
The 6th Circuit disagreed last week.
"A reasonable jury could find ... that the code of ethics contains no such bar and that the university deployed it as a pretext for punishing Ward's religious views and speech," Judge Jeffrey Sutton wrote for a three-member panel sitting in Cincinnati.
"If one thing is clear after three years of classes, it is that Ward is acutely aware of her own values," he added. "The point of the referral request was to avoid imposing her values on gay and lesbian clients. And the referral request not only respected the diversity of practicum clients, but it also conveyed her willingness to counsel gay and lesbian clients about other issues - all but relationship issues - an attitude confirmed by her equivalent concern about counseling heterosexual clients about extra-marital sex and adultery in a values-affirming way."
Though the university had said it rules for practicum students included a "no referral clause," the court could not find evidence in any handbook or course material to support the claim.
"At no point did any professor tell Ward about a no-referral policy - not during the informal review, not during the formal review, not even in the letter dismissing her from the program," Sutton wrote.
Citing remarks from the formal review, the court also questioned whether the faculty at Eastern Michigan remained objective throughout the expulsion process. "The inquiry was not a model of dispassion," the 22-page decision states. "Many of the participants' comments and questions focused on Ward's beliefs and her religious objection to affirming same-sex relationships. ... Pressing these points, [Ward's academic supervisor Professor Suzanne] Dugger asked Ward whether she would 'see her brand of Christianity as superior to' that of a Christian client who viewed her faith differently. ... And [review committee member Professor Perry] Francis ... asked whether she believed that 'anyone is more righteous than another before God?' and whether, if Ward's stated beliefs were true, 'doesn't that mean that you're all on the same boat and shouldn't [gays and lesbians] be accorded the same respect and honor God would give them?'"
Moreover, the faculty members contradicted themselves when they rejected her referral since the program's textbooks actually permit value-based referrals concerning subjects such as end-of-life decisions, the panel found.