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Freedom of Religion vs Gay Rights: The Julea Ward Case

Ron is the founding pastor of a church in Harrisburg, PA, and a graduate of Denver Seminary in Colorado.

Just 13 credits short of finishing her master’s degree course in counseling, Julea Ward faced a choice that could wipe out everything she had spent the last three years accomplishing. She was confronted with the decision of either standing for what she believed in, at the risk of potentially catastrophic repercussions, or doing what was demanded of her in order to get the degree she had worked so hard to earn.

She decided to stand on principle, and it got her expelled from her program without her degree.

A Highly Accomplished and Successful Student

After teaching English and radio and television broadcasting at a Detroit high school for ten years, Julea Ward wanted to become a school counselor. Michigan law requires a master’s degree in counseling in order to be licensed for the position she was seeking. So, in 2006 Julea enrolled in the counseling program at Eastern Michigan University.

Already the recipient of two master’s degrees, Julea was an excellent student. She carried a 3.91 GPA as she entered the last leg of her course. One of her final requirements for graduation was a counseling practicum designed to provide students with an opportunity to apply what they had learned by counseling one-on-one with real clients. Julea began the practicum in the winter quarter of 2009.

A Counseling Dilemma

Julea counseled her first two clients without incident. However, when she read the file of the next one on her list, she knew she faced a problem. The client was a homosexual man who wanted counseling concerning his same-sex relationship. The file indicated that a previous counselor had affirmed his homosexual lifestyle, but that was something Julea felt she could not do.

Julea Ward is a Christian who believes that the Bible brands homosexual relationships as inherently wrong. That commitment was for her an absolute roadblock to affirming the client in his homosexual behavior. Unwilling to do that, Julea sought direction from her advisor, who told her to refer the client to another counselor.

Conform or Else!

At their next meeting, however, the advisor informed Julea that her refusal to counsel the client on the basis of affirming his homosexual lifestyle violated the American Counseling Association (ACA) code of ethics. An informal review was scheduled for the purpose of helping Ward see the error of her ways. She, however, was unbending in her refusal to affirm same-sex relationships in her counseling. Offered the options of either voluntarily withdrawing from the program, or submitting to a formal review, Julea chose the latter.

The formal review began with the faculty members of the committee (which also had one student representative) asserting their belief that Ward had violated the profession’s code of ethics by “engaging in discrimination based on sexual orientation.” They recommended that she be dismissed from the program.

I had no problems counseling someone who was involved in homosexual behavior on any other issue that they might have . . . This had everything to do with wanting to stay true to the word of God because of my relationship with God.

— Julea Ward

Julea’s Explanation of Her Stand

Julea explained that she had discriminated against no one, and was perfectly willing to counsel with homosexual clients as long as that did not require her to affirm their sexual orientation. In cases where such an affirmation would be required, she simply asked to be allowed to refer the client to another counselor.

“I tried to explain that I had no problems counseling someone who was involved in homosexual behavior on any other issue that they might have,” she says. “I wanted to make it clear that this had nothing to do with being afraid of homosexuals or thinking negative thoughts (about them). This had everything to do with wanting to stay true to the word of God because of my relationship with God.”

VIDEO: Julea Ward tells her story

After the hearing, the committee was unanimous in their opinion that Ward had violated the code of ethics, and she was dismissed from the program. She responded by filing suit against the university for violating her Constitutional rights to free speech and free exercise of religion.

What Do You Think?

The Courts Decide

A district court sided with the university and issued a summary judgment against Ward. She appealed the decision to the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, which, in a strongly worded opinion, reversed the lower court decision.


Some of the appeal court’s findings were striking. In its written opinion the court said:

  • The ACA code of ethics expressly permits referrals based on conflicts of values, such as the type Julea Ward was seeking. Several of the textbooks used in Ward’s classes likewise say that sound counseling practices permit values-based referrals.
  • A reasonable jury could find that in light of the fact that the code of ethics does not bar such referrals, the university’s claim that Ward violated the code was a pretext for punishing her religious views and speech.
  • The court asked, “What did Ward do wrong? Ward was willing to work with all clients and to respect the school’s affirmation directives in doing so. That is why she asked to refer gay and lesbian clients (and some heterosexual clients) if the conversation required her to affirm their sexual practices. What more could the rule require?”
  • “Tolerance is a two-way street,” the court said. “The First Amendment does not permit educators to invoke curriculum as a pretext for punishing a student for her religion.”

After the appeals court decision, the university gave Julea Ward a $75,000 settlement and removed the expulsion from her record.

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Tolerance is a two-way street. The First Amendment does not permit educators to invoke curriculum as a pretext for punishing a student for her religion.

— 6th Circuit Court of Appeals

In July of 2012 the Michigan House passed the "Julea Ward Freedom Of Conscience Act,” which forbids public universities from disciplining a student "because the student refuses to counsel or serve a client as to goals, outcomes, or behaviors that conflict with a sincerely held religious belief of the student, if the student refers the client to a counselor who will provide the counseling or services." Predictably, the bill drew fierce opposition from groups such as the ACLU, the National Organization for Women, and various educational and professional societies, and has not been enacted into law.

A Role Model for Modern Christians

Julea Ward’s story is just the latest example of a circumstance all believers today need to be prepared to face:

2 Timothy 3:12 (NKJV) Yes, and all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution.

The headwinds in our society against the kind of stand Julea Ward took are becoming stronger and stronger. It will take extraordinary commitment and courage to buck them.

Julea Ward’s willingness to put her career on the line rather than violate the teachings of Scripture is something that any Christian today may be called upon to emulate.

© 2013 Ronald E Franklin


T Ruyi on September 21, 2020:

I don't think she was TRYING to be a courageous defender, respectfully; for me, that would be like a freedom-rider or one of the folks doing the sit-ins back during the Civil Rights Movement. I think she was just living her faith (this should have been one of the options), until she got a chance to turn her faith into conviction. I think for most people, their faith goes only so far --meaning, it never gets tested or it fails the test. I'm very happy things turned out in her favor, as they should have. I'm not a religious man but I certainly do appreciate people who actually believe what they say they believe.

I don't think this was the very first time someone who was a counselor and Christian refuse to counsel based on their principles otherwise her adviser wouldn't have told her to refer it to another. Maybe it was. However, I think it was more about power. They wanted to force her compliance. Her example might've inspired others. Interesting case. It's reminiscent of a more popular one of the same vein.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on April 09, 2015:

Hi, Charito1962. Today things in our world have moved even further away from God's standards. I believe every believer must be prepared to take a stand like Julea did. That's why I think her story is important - it provides inspiration we all need. Thanks for reading and sharing.

Charito Maranan-Montecillo from Manila, Philippines on April 09, 2015:

Julea Ward's act is truly heroic! I commend her for being courageous in suffering for righteous sake! I am happy that Julea has set a good example to Christians all over the world who deplore same-sex marriages simply because God forbids them! They also go against the natural law. And today, many Christians continue to be persecuted for their religious convictions. That's why we should honor them.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on January 31, 2015:

Hi oceansnsunsets. Thanks for reading and sharing. I think the bottom line of this story for our society lies in the statement of the appeals court: “Tolerance is a two-way street.” We live in a time when intolerance in the name of tolerance is widely practiced and often officially enforced. I hope the court's decision in this case will help give people a better perspective on what tolerance really means.

Paula from The Midwest, USA on January 31, 2015:

Hi Ron, I had not heard of this story. It seems that people should be allowed to think and feel whatever they want. If done respectfully, and within keeping with the laws, with no hint of bigotry whatsoever, I can't see why some students in these situations couldn't be referred to a counselor that could better suit the topics they wish to discuss. Thanks so much for sharing this. There are rights on both sides of this, of course. We live in such interesting times.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on May 02, 2013:

Thanks, kschimmel. It often seems today that the river of "tolerance" flows in only one direction.

Kimberly Schimmel from North Carolina, USA on May 02, 2013:

A good book that sheds more light on the moral dilemmas faced by psychologists today is "Unprotected" by Miriam Grossman. She can't help students by explaining, for example, that their "hooking up" lifestyle is making them unhealthy without violating university policy. She is a doctor forbidden to help!

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on March 05, 2013:

I think it's encouraging that in the climate we are in today, an appeals court would uphold the free speech and religious liberty rights of someone like Julea. Thanks, Diane.

G. Diane Nelson Trotter from Fontana on March 05, 2013:

I heard about this when it started but didn't hear about the higher court reversal. It is interesting that the reversal didn't receive as much coverage as the initial story. Thank you Ron!

Brenda Durham on February 26, 2013:

YES it does! Many stories like this get lost in all the liberal hoopla that's overtaken the media and etc.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on February 26, 2013:

Thanks, Brenda. Julea's story really needs to be known.

Brenda Durham on February 25, 2013:

Amen to Julia standing strong and not backing down at the liberal onslaught!

Great story, RonElFran, very timely and well-written.

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