July 2010 Update: A federal judge has ruled in EMU’s favor, upholding Julea Ward’s expulsion.

The story of Julea Ward, a former counseling student who is suing Eastern Michigan University over her expulsion from their graduate program, is burning up the right-wing blogosphere.

Conservative commenters on the case generally argue that Ward, a Christian, was removed from the program because she refused to “advocate for homosexual behavior” — or, as National Review‘s David French puts it, “vocally support same-sex sexual conduct.”

But Ward’s attorneys have posted various documents relating to her dismissal up online, and those documents tell a different story.

In a letter she read during her disciplinary hearing, Ward said she believes that “God ordained relationships between men and women,” and that people should “strive to cultivate sexual desires for persons of the opposite sex.” She is, she said, “morally obligated … to express the biblical viewpoint regarding proper sexual relationships” in the course of her counseling work.

The disciplinary action that led to Ward’s expulsion was initiated after she asked to be reassigned off the case of a gay counseling client, and she was asked why she would feel comfortable counseling someone who was contemplating abortion, but not someone who was in a gay relationship. “With abortion,” she said, “you have options which you can offer. With a client that’s struggling with homosexuality … it’s just, ‘OK, this is who you are, so we’re only going to deal with helping you feel comfortable with who you are.’ You cannot discuss any other treatment plans that would bring them out of that particular lifestyle.”

Ward’s gloss on the her ethical obligations, as laid down by the American Counseling Association, is almost, but not quite, right.

ACA-certified counselors are not prohibited from referring clients for so-called “conversion” therapy — therapy designed to help someone who is gay become straight. They are discouraged from making such referrals, however, and they may not offer such therapy themselves, since the ACA has concluded that “research does not support [it] as an effective treatment modality.” In addition, they may not — and this is crucial — refer a client for such therapy in the absence of a client-initiated request for such a referral.

The ACA’s code of ethics states that counselors must “avoid imposing values that are inconsistent with counseling goals,” and the association’s statement on conversion therapy makes it clear that it does not consider “curing” homosexuality a legitimate counseling goal. “To refer a client to someone who engages in conversion therapy,” the ACA states, “communicates to the client that his/her same-sex attractions and behaviors are disordered and, therefore, need to be changed. This contradicts the dictates of the 2005 ACA Code of Ethics.”

It is not true, as Ward’s lawsuit alleges, that either EMU or the ACA prohibit counselors “from advising clients that they can refrain from homosexual conduct.” What the school and the association both say is that counselors may not offer such advice unless the client expresses a desire to make such a life change.

EMU and the ACA do not, as Ward claims, “affirm homosexual conduct.” They consider it morally and therapeutically neutral. It’s not worthy of praise, and it’s not a problem to be solved. It’s just a fact.

Ward was expelled because she repudiates this fundamental therapeutic premise, and in so doing rejects a basic ethical tenet of the profession she wishes to practice.

Update: Welcome Crunchy Con readers! Feel free to leave a comment — I’m interested in hearing your thoughts.

April 10 update: The Ypsilanti Citizen has interviewed EMU students about the case.

April 11 update: As this blogger notes, Ward’s attorneys have argued that one of her professors assigned a textbook that recommends that therapists refer clients elsewhere when “value conflicts regarding homosexual behavior” arise. That claim is not, however, supported by a reading of the text at issue.

The, Becoming a Helper by Marianne Schneider Corey and Gerald Corey, raises referral as a “last resort” option in a situation in which a therapist has been unable to resolve value conflicts with a specific client in other ways. It does not in any way endorse therapists’ declining to counsel entire classes of clients because of value conflicts.

On the contrary, it cautions therapists that “merely having a conflict does not imply the need for a referral,” and emphasizes that when a therapist feels the need to insist on a referral, “the problem is likely to reside more in you than in a particular client.”

In the specific case of therapists who have moral objections to homosexuality, the text does not suggest referral as an appropriate response. Indeed, it states flatly that therapists whose prospective clients include lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals “are ethically obligated not to allow their personal values to intrude into their professional work.”

(The relevant sections of Becoming a Helper are included as an appendix to Ward’s legal complaint, available in PDF form here.)

May 2 update: Why Ward’s offer to refer gay clients to another therapist isn’t a valid compromise.