CT Daily, Online Exclusives

Resolution of EMU case confirms ACA Code of Ethics, counseling profession’s stance against client discrimination

Heather Rudow January 9, 2013

(Photo:Flickr/krossbow)

(Photo:Flickr/krossbow)

In December, after years of litigation, the court case Julea Ward v. Board of Regents of Eastern Michigan University was resolved. The resolution upheld the university counseling program’s policies and confirmed the ACA Code of Ethics as the guide for defining ethical behavior for professional counselors. The case also reiterated that equal rights and social justice remain key pillars of the counseling profession.

“The resolution of the lawsuit leaves the university’s policies, programs and curricular requirements intact,” said Walter Kraft, vice president for communications at Eastern Michigan University (EMU), in a press release. “The faculty retains its right to establish, in its learned judgment, the curriculum and program requirements for the counseling program at Eastern Michigan University. EMU has made the decision that it is in the best interest of its students and the taxpayers of the state of Michigan to resolve the litigation rather than continue to spend money on a costly trial. The matter has been resolved in the amount of $75,000. The university’s insurance company, M.U.S.I.C. (Michigan Universities Self-Insurance Corporation), will pay the cost of the settlement.”

The case began in 2009, when then-student Ward began her practicum at EMU. Upon reading the file of a client to which she was assigned and finding he had previously been counseled about his same-sex relationship, Ward, a conservative Christian, notified her supervisor that, in accordance with her religious beliefs, she would not be able to counsel the client and needed to refer him to someone else.

Ward’s supervisor canceled the counseling session and scheduled an informal review, during which EMU faculty members explained to Ward that she needed to abide by the university counseling program’s policies and curricular requirements, which adhere to the ACA Code of Ethics. The ACA Code of Ethics states that “counselors may not discriminate against clients on the basis of age, culture, disability, ethnicity, race, religion/spirituality, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, marital status/partnership, language preference, socioeconomic status or any basis proscribed by law.” This meant Ward was required to set aside her personal beliefs and values when working with clients during practicum.

Given the choice of completing a remediation program, leaving the EMU counseling program or requesting a formal hearing, Ward chose the hearing. As a result of the formal hearing, she was dismissed from the program for violating the ACA Code of Ethics.

Ward sued EMU for her dismissal with the backing of the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) — formerly the Alliance Defense Fund — an organization of Christian lawyers that also assisted in another counseling student’s case at Augusta State University that revolved around counseling clients who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT).

According to the EMU press release, “The ADF lawsuit sought to stop [EMU] from enforcing its policies prohibiting discrimination and requiring the students in its counseling program to counsel students in conformance with the code of ethics of the American Counseling Association.”

ACA provided expert testimony for the case, which the judge quoted when granting the summary judgment in the decision.

On July 27, 2010, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan granted summary judgment in favor of EMU, which Ward appealed. She made her oral arguments on Oct. 4, 2011, and on Jan. 27, 2012, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals sent the case back to district court for a jury trial. ACA Chief Professional Officer David Kaplan spent a morning being deposed for the scheduled trial.

In December, Ward officially left the program.

“Personally and as a department, we are pleased that the lawsuit is settled,” says Perry Francis, counseling professor and counseling clinic coordinator at EMU. “It has taken a great deal of time and energy to defend ourselves, and now we can continue to focus on educating our students to become excellent clinicians in the mental health profession.”

Francis believes implications from the court case are clear, showing that counseling is “best accomplished by entering into the world of the client, valuing that client as a worthwhile individual who deserves [our] nonjudgmental care and concern. That has been what we teach to our students; it drives our policies and is a reflection of the professional values and ethics of the counseling profession. To accomplish this, we teach our students how first to become aware of their own values and issues, how to bracket off those values and issues that would interfere with client care and then to enter into the client’s world to help him or her develop into the best person he or she can be.”

Kaplan echoed those sentiments. “ACA is pleased that the settlement leaves intact the district court ruling that fully supported Eastern Michigan University’s gatekeeping function in dismissing a student who refused to counsel an [LGBT] client, the right for CACREP to require adherence to the ACA Code of Ethics and the nondiscrimination statement within the ACA Code of Ethics,” Kaplan says.

Pete Finnerty, president of the Association for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Issues in Counseling, a division of ACA, says the case was especially relevant for LGBT individuals, who are often marginalized and discriminated against.

“Eastern Michigan stood strong for nondiscrimination and should be applauded for doing so,” Finnerty says. “When Julea Ward refused to counsel a gay man, she was discriminating against an individual for religious reasons. This not only shows a refusal to move past her own values but also creates an environment where it is impossible for all persons to have equitable treatment under policies long in effect at university and community levels.”

Because of the lawsuit, EMU has also come under fire from Michigan legislators, Finnerty adds.

“Two bills within the last few years, including the recently shelved SB 975 …  sought to make it illegal for Eastern Michigan and all other educational institutions in the state to enforce its nondiscrimination policies by allowing medical and mental health professionals to refuse service based upon ‘conscience,’” he says. “This bill nearly made it to the governor’s desk but was not voted on in the House before the end of the legislative session. There was specific language in this bill that targeted educational institutions [that] utilize a nondiscrimination policy. The language noted penalties and fines for enforcing nondiscrimination clauses.”

Finnerty notes the likelihood exists that similar legislation could still come about, however, because other freedom of conscience bills were passed into law in states such as Arizona.

In 2011, Arizona passed HB 2565, which prohibits schools from disciplining a student in a counseling, social work or psychology program if the student refuses to counsel a client about goals that conflict with the student’s “sincerely held religious belief.” In 2012, the state passed SB 1365, prohibiting the denial, suspension or revocation of a person’s counseling license or certification for “declining to provide any service that violates the person’s sincerely held religious beliefs, expressing sincerely held religious beliefs in any context, as long as services provided otherwise meet the current standard of care or practice for the profession, providing faith-based services that otherwise meet the current standard of care or practice for the profession, making business-related decisions in accordance with sincerely held religious beliefs, including employment decisions, client selection decisions and financial decisions.”

In Michigan, SR 66, a resolution to enact legislation protecting the rights of conscience of students seeking counseling degrees and licensed professional counselors, calls out ACA directly: “Whereas, the American Counseling Association, a private organization that promulgates a code of ethics widely used by university counseling programs and state licensure boards in training for and regulating the counseling profession, has publicly supported universities that have punished or dismissed students for adhering to their sincere religious convictions.”

However, says Finnerty, “The conclusion to [Julea Ward v. Board of Regents of Eastern Michigan University] is a win for the LGBTQQIA community, as those who serve this population were activated to defeat the legislation and not allow anti-gay groups to press their agenda upon the counseling profession that holds equitable and fair treatment as paramount to counseling. LGBTQQIA clients can be sure that counselors will continue to be trained through a multicultural lens where nondiscrimination and personal growth, not a counselor’s personal values, is pertinent to the counseling relationship. For counselors and educators, this shows that believing in a world that values nondiscrimination and diversity is still very much a plausible reality and must be continually strived for.”

Says Francis, “We as a profession must continue to teach these professional values to our students so they can have a positive impact not only on our clients’ lives but on the society as a whole.”

To learn more about the case, visit emich.edu/aca_case

  Heather Rudow is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at hrudow@counseling.org.

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4 Comments

  1. Dennis Darby

    This is a very interesting article. It seem to take the view that the secular policies of EMU are in full alignment with the social justice policies of the ACA. Unfortunately too many organizations that do professional advocacy like the ACA (yes you did receive my student dues over the last 3 years, and yes you did give me professional liability insurance) base the whole of their ethical standards on the bottom line of litigation and lawsuits and not on true principles of social justice. We do have thest principles of social justice as old as mankind. We call this natural law. But like other secular institutions paid for by taxpayers, the EMU seems satisfied with the culture of death, the suppression of fair media coverage, the abortion, planned parenthood anti-family values rhetoric.

    Reply
  2. Vicki

    Ok!! This debate is something else. First off, if you are going to be a counselor you will need to be able to FOCUS ON THE CLIENT. Just because you are listening and trying to help a person deal with their sexual orientation or anything else for that matter doesn’t mean you have to agree with their life choice. Second, a REAL CHRISTIAN knows that it is NOT their right to judge others. the right of judgement belongs to GOD. STOP using GOD as an excuse to reject other people!!! I would hate to see you react to working with criminals, lol. The first time someone tells you the ways they would like to hurt others. If you are going to be a counselor?! You better TOUGHEN UP.

    Reply
  3. Bren

    The title of this article is enormously misleading, considering how the Sixth District Court ruled last year. You should read the 22-page opinion that Judge Sutton published regarding this case, in which he defended Ms. Ward’s request for referral using several sections of the ACA Code of Ethics. Namely, he considered A.4.b. and allowed that her referral had fit within those guidelines. She was “acutely aware of her values” and attempted to avoid imposing them on the client by requesting a referral. Moreover, “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.” He followed by defending her actions using C.5. (saying she was willing to work with all clients, including homosexual clients, just not on topics that conflicted with her values), A.11.b. (defending that the code of ethics allowed for referrals), and A.9.b. (pointing out that the ethical code specifically recognizes and allows for one situation in which personal and moral values inhibit the counselor’s ability to competently assist the client).

    The court decision did NOT confirm EMU’s ACA Code of Ethics or the counseling profession’s stance against client discrimination. In fact, it did the exact opposite.

    I think the portion found in the Purpose section of the ACA is applicable in considering Ms. Ward’s position… “When counselors are faced with ethical dilemmas that are difficult to resolve, they are expected to engage in a carefully considered ethical decision-making process. Reasonable differences of opinion can and do exist among counselors with respect to the ways in which values, ethical principles, and ethical standards would be applied when they conflict. While there is no specific ethical decision-making model that is most effective, counselors are expected to be familiar with a credible model of decision making that can bear public scrutiny and its application.” Ms. Ward, in choosing not to counsel clients on an issue as controversial and sensitive as homosexuality, is putting herself in a perpetual firestorm. Flat refusal to engage an entire population of people is not something intended by any counseling code of ethics, and her actions do not represent a “credible model of decision making that can bear public scrutiny.” Unless Michigan passes a Freedom of Conscious bill, she will soon find herself on the receiving end of a costly lawsuit.

    Reply
  4. Timothy

    OK, so let me get this correct we are to respect everyone’s belives, except for that of Christians. Sorry but a counselor should have the right to refer another counselor that can properly give the serves that the client is recommneding. It is idiotic to believe a counselor can set aside their personal opinon, as it is impossible to do. So if a person has a true religious believe, then they should be allowed to refer the client to someone who could truly help them. What the ACA is promoting is reverse discrimination. It is pushing an idea that we believe agree with this controversal topic, and thus you must tell everyone that it is ok. This same thing can go with a client who is thinking about having an abortion. IF the counselor feels it is murder, as it is ending a persons life, should the counselor be forced to talk the client into the abortion; or should they not have the right to say look I am going to counsel you that their is value in every life. Would it not be more ethical to refer the client to a counselor that has his or her believes; after all that would not only provide the best counseling for the client, but also preserve the religious believes of the counselor. After all it is not like there are not options in the counseling field. But I cause the ACA beliefs it is more important to push an agenda, then to truly determine what is right for the clients and its members.

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