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Excerpts from the ruling by Hon. George Caram Steeh, July 27, 2010

On July 27, 2010, the Honorable George Caram Steeh issued a ruling in the case of Julea Ward v. Roy Wilbanks, et. al. Following are excerpts from the 48-page ruling (full PDF document).

Page 19

Courts have traditionally given public colleges and graduate schools wide latitude "to create curricula that fit schools' understandings of their educational missions." Kissinger v. Board of Trustees of Ohio State University, 5 F.3d 177, 181 (6th Cir. 1993) (citing Doherty v. Southern College of Optometry, 862 F.2d 570, 576-66 (6th Cir. 1988)).  "This judicial deference to educators in their curriculum decisions is no less applicable in a clinical setting because evaluation in a clinical course 'is no less an 'academic' judgment because it involves observation of . . . skills and techniques in actual conditions of practice, rather than assigning a grade to . . . written answers on an essay question.’” Doherty, 862 F.2d at 576-77 (quoting Board of Curators of Univ. of Missouri v. Horowitz, 435 U.S. 78, 95 (1978) (Powell, J., concurring)). A federal court should not override a "'genuinely academic decision' . . . unless it is such a substantial departure from accepted academic norms as to demonstrate that the person or committee responsible did not actually exercise professional judgment.” Regents of the University of Michigan v. Ewing, 474 U.S. 214, 225 (1985). 

Counseling, by its very nature, relies on a uniquely personal and intimate relationship between the counselor and client to assist in delivering the objectives sought by the client. Educating counselors to provide such services is clearly within the expertise of the universities that provide such programs.

Page 21

The evidence in this case supports the University’s claim that the Policy is part of the curriculum. Students have notice of the Policy, both in the Handbook and as taught in most counseling classes. It is the University’s prerogative to define its own curriculum, and it has given sufficient rational reasons for including the ACA Code of Ethics in its curriculum.

Page 26-27

The University had a rational basis for adopting the ACA Code of Ethics into its counseling program, not the least of which was the desire to offer an accredited program. Furthermore, the University had a rational basis for requiring its students to counsel clients without imposing their personal values. In the case of Ms. Ward, the University determined that she would never change her behavior and would consistently refuse to counsel clients on matters with which she was personally opposed due to her religious beliefs - including homosexual relationships.

Her refusal to attempt learning to counsel all clients within their own value systems is a failure to complete an academic requirement of the program.

A counselor who cannot keep their personal values out of the interaction has great potential to harm her client.

All of this supports defendant’s position that a counselor needs clinical educational experiences to draw upon in order to deal with situations in a non-harmful, ethically appropriate manner. Providing such skills to its graduates is the legitimate pedagogical concern of the University. EMU could not confer a counseling degree on a student who said she would categorically refer all clients who sought counseling on topics with which she had contrary moral convictions. 

Having demonstrated that its Policy is reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns, the University did not violate plaintiff’s First Amendment free speech rights.

Page 28

 'Plaintiff has distorted the facts in this case to support her position that defendants dismissed her due to her religious beliefs.  While defendants may have been indelicate in their inquiry into Ms. Ward's beliefs, they never demonstrated a purpose to change her religious beliefs.  Defendants were at all times concerned with plaintiff's refusal to counsel an entire class of people whose values she did not share.  Defendants acknowledged that plaintiff's beliefs motivated her behaviors, but always made the distinction between the two, and in no way attacked her beliefs.  Even plaintiff is forced to agree that Drs. Callaway and Dugger never told her that she needed to change her religious beliefs.  (Ward dep. 223).'"

Pg. 46-48

EMU’s regulation is reasonably related to the legitimate pedagogical goal of maintaining a rigorous counseling program, thus it would pass the rational basis test. In order to maintain accreditation through CACREP, EMU needs to adhere to the ACA and ASCA Ethics Codes. Plaintiff does not dispute EMU’s claim that CACREP accreditation is “integral” to maintaining the counseling program’s caliber. As an educational institution, setting and maintaining educational standards is a legitimate goal; and adherence to the Ethics Codes is a reasonable means to further this goal. Since the Ethics Codes require the student to build a boundary between their personal values and the conducts of their clients, EMU was acting in accord with its pedagogical goal to discipline students who failed to do so. Defendants did offer plaintiff the option of a remediation program to change her professional conduct, which, had plaintiff chosen to accept it, would have led to plaintiff obtaining her degree.

Plaintiff has been a student with excellent academic credentials, and her work earned repeated approval from the faculty members – even when she expressed potential difficulties in following the ACA Code of Ethics due to religious reasons in her papers - until she explicitly refused to comply with the academic requirements of the Practicum.

Plaintiff’s Equal Protection Clause claim, analyzed under the rational basis standard is without merit. 

This court finds that even if plaintiff succeeded in her free exercise claim, resulting in strict scrutiny review of her equal protection claim, defendants have demonstrated a compelling interest and narrowly tailored means to achieve the end. The Supreme Court has recognized the fundamental role of public education in “maintaining the fabric of our society.” Plyler, 457 U.S. at 221. Therefore, public educational institutions have been given considerable deference by the judiciary in determining their own academic standards. Some courts have held that a compelling interest in public education includes designing and teaching a curriculum as the State sees fit.

EMU has a compelling interest to design and maintain a counseling program meeting the CACREP accreditation standard, and its measure to enforce this goal is narrowly-tailored: it is not so under-inclusive that it only targets plaintiff’s religion, nor is it so over-inclusive that it substantially regulates aspects of students’ personal lives outside of their professional conduct.