CT Daily, Online Exclusives

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

By Heather Rudow January 9, 2013



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


Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.


  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.

  2. 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.

    1. David

      I concur with Bren’s opinion that the above report does not accurately reflect the outomce of this litigation. For other readers, note the link to the judge’s statement: http://www.ca6.uscourts.gov/opinions.pdf/12a0024p-06.pdf.

      Having been a mental practitioner and educator for over 35 years, I know there are always going to be cases where a counselor’s convictions will conflict with those of the client in such a way as to be incompatible with therapeutic success. You might have a client who wants to learn to be more assertive about professing their beliefs, such as that non-heteroxesual unions are immoral or that women should not go to college or hold a job. Having worked in rural settings, I have found such beliefs to be fairly common. Those convictions may be sincerely held, and I find it challenging be effective in working with individuals whose belief systems are so much at odds with mine. This is not to say that there is always a simple solution to this dilemma, but, as the Judge Sutton said, “Tolerance is a two-way street. Otherwise, the rule mandates orthodoxy, not anti-discrimination.”

  3. 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.

    1. Counselor

      This is such a slippery slope. First off, you said: “should the counselor be forced to talk the client into the abortion”. Since when it is our job to “talk the client into” anything? That is not our role. Our role is to listen, have unconditional positive regard for our clients, and help them process feelings. We don’t give advice, and we keep our values on hold–why don’t we give advice?: because then our values shine through, and that is not what the therapy session is about. It’s not about us, it’s about them. If we can start referring clients whose values aren’t inline with ours, where does it end? “i am working with a poor, unemployed man. I fully value work ethic; therefore I believe my client should get off his butt and get a job. Shoot! Out values aren’t aligned, I better refer out!” Where does it end? I can use any excuse to “get rid of a client” that I don’t agree with. If you think it only relates to religious beliefs, then that’s not right–if I’m not religious, does that mean I don’t get a say and my beliefs don’t matter? It’s a great discussion to have, but I want to bring up how much a slippery slope it can be.

  4. Fr. Paul Moore

    The concern of value based referrals extends beyond religious concerns. Counselors who work in agency or correctional settings (offenders, court ordered, etc) where law enforcement or courts are involved often “impose” the values, beliefs, and worldviews that conflict with the client’s. Should counselors support or affirm lifestyles and worldviews that support violence and bullying, even if the clients were from other countries or cultures, or our own?
    Social Justice & equality is rooted in values. And if social justice & equality is rooted in values then the very practice of social justice & promoting equality is in itself the promotion of values.
    So, each counselor has to navigate through their own value system and determine how effective they can be and if their conscience allows them to proceed.
    Currently, the values based approach being advocated might mean:
    Feminists counselors would have to affirm clients who support oppression of women and abusive behaviors (not necessarily illegal) violating their conscience.
    Christian counselor would have to affirm clients who support behaviors contrary to deeply held beliefs that make up their core beliefs.
    Social Justice oriented counselors would have to affirm clients who support bullying of minorities.

    What about the counselor’s ability to be authentic and genuine?
    The standardization and streamlining of the counseling practice/profession and coercive power based intimidation by her leadership to create cookie cutter counselors/approaches is unsettling.

    Also, what is overlooked is the appellate courts response that was never implemented because it was settled before. The language used, had the case moved forward, was very negative towards the school’s treatment of the student.

  5. Sarah C

    Had Ward embraced the values listed in the ACA’s Code of ethics; autonomy, nonmaleficence, beneficence, justice, fidelity and veracity she would not have had such a problem with the university. She would have treated the client’s she was seeing with justice and also recognized and appreciated the client’s autonomy. Had her beliefs not been discriminatory in nature, her veracity (genuineness) would have never conflicted with the client population she served.

  6. Marcus G

    Bren, thank you for your well-thought response and insight referencing the 22 page Judges decision. David, thank you for adding the link to his comment and your quote, “tolerance is a two-way street”.

  7. Matthew R.

    There is great hypocrisy in these counseling programs. How can these counseling programs be so ethical (moral) when they sanction immoral mental health practitioners who promote abortion (murder), divorce, homosexuality, witchcraft and other perversions? JESUS talked about hypocrisy and would say to these counseling program leaders:
    “So you..outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” Matthew 23:28 (NASB)
    “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” Matthew 7:5 (NASB).
    It is important to note that for Idaho at least, there is an exemption in law for faith based counselors. Here is the link below to that law (the exemption appears in the third paragraph from the bottom of the following web site):

  8. Jim Murphy

    EMU was in the wrong. The code of ethics of the American Counseling Association recognizes a variety of valid, ethical reasons to refer a potential client to another professional. It is not considered discrimination to refer. It is considered professional.

    If Julea Ward was being asked by a teenager for help in changing from a homosexual orientation to a heterosexual orientation, and she didn’t believe it was right and therefore referred, would she be removed from EMU’s program? If she was asked by an adult for help in improving an incestuous relationship with the client’s father, and Julea Ward could not ethically assist, would she be kicked out of EMU? If she had been sexually abused as a child and was asked to counsel a convicted serial rapist and referred the client to another therapist, would the ACA frown on this?

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