Futures and Options

Just another town along the road.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Ward v. Wilbanks

I wish I could say that I’d been following Ward v. Wilbanks as a result of a watchful eye on interesting cases, but I have to admit that it took a friend’s comments on the Fox News coverage to bring the case to my attention (despite what some of you may think given my political leanings, I have no love of Fox’s often-skewed reporting).  For those of you who don’t care to read through the judgement and who (correctly) don’t fully trust Fox’s article, I’ll summarize the case briefly.

Julea Ward was enrolled as a graduate student in Eastern Michigan University’s Counseling program.  As part of state accreditation requirements, the curriculum for this program includes instruction on, and mandates adherence to, the ACA Code of Ethics.  Students failing to follow the American Counseling Association’s code are subject to disciplinary action, up to and including the student’s removal from the program.  ACA standards as well as state accreditation standards further specify that students will be required to engage in a Practicum during which time they will apply their classroom knowledge by engaging in actual counseling sessions, albeit with oversight from a professional in the field or faculty members themselves.

Ms. Ward excelled in the classroom portion of the program and despite taking numerous positions on homosexuality, both in written work and during in-class discussions, that were substantially contrary to those of her professors and fellow students, continued to receive high marks in all classroom courses.   There is no evidence to suggest that Ms. Ward’s views caused any undue hardship for her during the two and a half years she spent in the classroom portion of the program, indeed the consistent high marks awarded to Ms. Ward provide strong evidence that, despite disagreements on the issue of homosexuality, the faculty were successful in their efforts to judge Ms. Ward’s work on its own merits rather than on whether they personally agreed with the positions it often described.

After a highly successful completion of the classroom portion of the program, Ms. Ward entered the Practicum in early 2009 with no initial indications of potential difficulty.  During the course of the Practicum, however, Ms. Ward was asked to counsel a student who was seeking help with depression.  Upon learning that this student had previously sought counseling about a homosexual relationship, Ms. Ward asked her supervisor (a counselor under whose license Ms. Ward was practicing) if the student should be referred to another counselor due to Ms. Ward’s inability to “affirm” the client’s homosexual behavior even though said behavior was not the reason for the counseling session.  Ms. Ward’s supervisor agreed to re-schedule the student with a different counselor.

Ms. Ward was later informed that she would not be assigned additional clients and that her supervisor was requesting an informal review (a non-disciplinary process that includes a student, his or her supervisor, and the student’s faculty advisor) to discuss whether Ms. Ward’s refusal to counsel a homosexual even about issues unrelated to homosexuality represented a breach of the ACA guidelines.  It should be noted that these guidelines are given prominence in classroom learning and it is not possible that someone with Ms. Ward’s academic record could have been unfamiliar with them.  The purpose of this review was to remind Ms. Ward of these guidelines (which state, in part, that, “discrimination based on . . . sexual orientation” is prohibited) and to discuss the fact that a counselor has an obligation to provide counseling based on the client’s values, not the counselor’s values per ACA guidelines.

After the review, Ms. Ward was presented with three options:  (1) complete a “remediation program”; (2) voluntarily leave the program; or (3) request a formal hearing.  Participation in the remediation program required that Ms. Ward recognize, “that she needed to make some changes.” (Judgement, page 4)  The goal of the remediation program was to help Ms. Ward successfully find ways to counsel homosexuals on issues unrelated to their homosexuality.  Ms. Ward chose to request a formal hearing instead.

The formal hearing (which was presided over by a much larger panel than the informal review) resulted in a unanimous decision that ACA guidelines had, in fact, been violated and that, as a result, Ms. Ward was to be dismissed from the program.

That’s the background.

Much has been made about Judge Steeh’s judgement in favor of Eastern Michigan University (EMU), with one news outlet (I’m looking at you Fox) claiming that, as a result of the ruling, “schools can expel students . . . who believe homosexuality is morally wrong.”  This is a ridiculous reading of Steeh’s judgement and it makes me question whether Mr. Starnes (the author of the Fox article) even bothered to read the judgement.  This misrepresentation is not unique to Fox, however, as everyone’s favorite “McPaper”, USA Today, is getting in on the unfounded sensationalism by claiming that the judgement requires that, “student counselors must ‘affirm’ gay clients.

The reality of the situation is that Justice Steeh’s judgement is, in fact, quite narrow and is unlikely to set any significant new precedent.  The Judgement, when distilled to its essence, essentially reiterates the already established legal fact that a school has the right to enforce a program’s guidelines when such guidelines have clear secular purposes.  In EMU’s case, the guidelines in question were those of the world’s largest association of professional counselors; it is not at all unreasonable for the university to hold students in a particular program to the same standards as are prevalent within the professional world to which that program applies.  Additionally, the school is required to adopt and enforce these guidelines in order to maintain its accreditation; a concern which is most certainly secular in nature as well as being religiously neutral.

My own commentary on the entire issue is simple.  Ms. Ward knew the ACA guidelines and knew that her own views were in opposition to those guidelines.  As such, she had three main options: (1) seek attendance at a school which adopts and enforces ACA guidelines and, in so doing, accept that she would need to counsel homosexual persons without bias despite her own views; (2)  seek attendance at a school which did not adopt ACA guidelines and, in doing so, accept that such a school would not be accredited; or (3) seek attendance at a school which adopts ACA guidelines but dispute the idea that said guidelines require her to counsel homosexual persons.

Ms. Ward chose the third option and the outcome should have been predictable.  Indeed, the outcome is so predictable that one must wonder if this were not Ms. Ward’s intent from the very beginning.  The complaint filed by Ms. Ward’s lawyers seems to support this reading of the situation as my first impression upon reading Ms. Ward’s complaint was that her lawyers chose to throw as much at the wall as possible and simply hope that something stuck.

It is disheartening to see the press making so much out of what is, in reality, an unsurprising judgement.

posted by Zenmervolt at 13:46  

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