A federal appeals court gave a conservative Christian counseling student’s lawsuit new life last week, ruling that Julea Ward’s case against Eastern Michigan University could go forward.

Ward was expelled from EMU’s graduate counseling program in early 2009. As I wrote at the time, Ward asked to be reassigned off the case of a gay counseling client. 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.

When asked by the school 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.”

The Ward case has become a cause celebre for the Christian Right, who see her expulsion as a violation of religious freedom and as evidence of the politicization of the counseling profession’s ethics codes. Although the American Counseling Association does not explicitly bar so-called conversion therapy intended to “cure” homosexuality, it notes that such therapies have no proven record of effectiveness. More importantly, as I wrote in 2009, it bars therapists from suggesting such approaches in the absence of a client-initiated request.

Last week’s decision is not a ruling against EMU on the merits of the case, but a reversal of a lower court’s granting of what’s known as “summary judgment” in the university’s favor. The court declared that because, under the most generous reading of the evidence available, “a reasonable jury could conclude that Ward’s professors ejected her from the counseling program because of hostility toward her speech and faith,” the previous decision to throw out the case before it reached a jury was mistaken.

The issues in play here are important ones. A fundamental question is that of the EMU (and ACA) policy on referral in situations in which a counselor is unable to meet a client’s therapeutic needs — Ward claims that such referrals are explicitly authorized by the ACA ethics code, and the appellate court ruling is sympathetic to that position.

As I’ve written in the past, however, the ACA code only anticipates client referral on a case-by-case basis, not a counselor’s rejection of an entire class of clients. And while Ward’s stance may seem reasonable on the surface, the fact is that a client’s homosexuality will not always be made known to a counselor in advance of the establishment of a therapeutic relationship. For a counselor to establish such a relationship and then break it off upon learning that her client is gay would, EMU rightly perceived, represent a profound betrayal and a violation of the counselor’s ethical obligations.

More on this as the case goes forward.