A Contentious Issue in Counselor Training

Last summer, my sister (who directs a university counseling center) sent me a link to a story in the online journal, Inside Higher Education . The story was about a lawsuit brought by a student at Eastern Michigan University, Julea Ward, who was dismissed from the Master’s degree in counseling program after she refused to provide counseling to a gay client at her practicum site. Her stated reason for doing so was that providing counseling to this client would have violated her religious beliefs that homosexual behavior is immoral. The university maintained that American Counseling Association ethical standards and state counselor licensing regulations prohibit a counselor from attempting to impose his or her own values on clients, and from discriminating against clients on the basis of sexual orientation.

Ms. Ward was asked to comply with a remediation plan to address her academic performance and professional conduct. She refused to do so if it meant that she had to counsel gay clients without informing them that she considered their behavior immoral. She was first given informal remediation, then a formal hearing, and was finally dismissed from the program. She enlisted the help of an advocacy group, the Alliance Defense Fund, which frequently intervenes in situations in which they perceive that students with religious beliefs (always Christians, as it happens) feel that they are being treated with hostility at colleges and universities. They typically frame these issues as freedom of religion. In this case, the lawsuit alleged that Ms. Ward’s dismissal from the program was a result of her expression of her religious beliefs.

A judge gave a ruling (a link to the document is in the article) dismissing her lawsuit and finding in favor of the university. The judge’s ruling was very carefully reasoned and thoughtfully explained. It pointed out  that, although certain faculty members did express disapproval of her beliefs, her dismissal from the program was the result of her repeated refusal to abide by the university’s policies and the ACA ethical code. The judge did not agree with her contention that the ethical code allowed her to summarily refer a client to a different counselor just because she disapproved of the client’s behavior, and found that in fact her professional standards include an obligation to provide competent counseling services to any client without regard to sexual orientation, as stated in the nondiscrimination policy. The judge pointed out that the ethical standard for referring a client to another counselor only comes into play when doing so would better serve the client, and not simply because it would offend the counselor’s values to work with that client.

The ADF gave a summary (Scroll down to the “Michigan” section) of the judge’s decision on one of their websites which somewhat distorted the judge’s ruling and characterized the remediation plan as “requiring her to change her beliefs” and as “reprogramming.” This is consistent with their position that public universities often act as “thought police” and try to belittle the religious views of some Christians.

Another similar case was filed several months later against Augusta State University. One of my colleagues today talked about several legislative efforts in various states that would make it illegal to sanction a student in similar circumstances, provided that the student claims the action is being taken because of his or her religious values. I’ve been trying to find more information on that, so I can’t verify the accuracy of it at this point. However, it would not surprise me given the current political climate in this country.

The sticking point here, of course, is the belief by certain people that homosexuality is sinful. This is a position that used to be fairly common, back in the days when homosexuality was still listed as a mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association. This was also before any laws that prohibited discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. When homosexuality, bisexuality, and transsexuality were depathologized and destigmatized in the arenas of law and public discourse, the positions of these religious conservatives (and of the Catholic Church) were restated so that they no longer implied discrimination against the person, but only condemnation of homosexual behavior. In other words, they did not disapprove of people who were attracted to the same sex, but only of the ones who acted upon their attraction.

The faculty members who handled this situation acted and spoke carefully for the most part. Some of them probably overstepped their role as evaluators of her professional competence when they engaged in discussions about religion in relation to this issue (judging by the partial transcript included in the judge’s findings); but in the end the counseling department’s decisions clearly followed the ACA Code of Ethics, which states, “Counselors gain knowledge, personal awareness, sensitivity, and skills pertinent to working with a diverse client population.” The Code also states, “Counselors do not condone or engage in discrimination based on age, culture, disability, ethnicity, race, religion/spirituality, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, marital status/partnership, language preference, socioeconomic status, or any basis proscribed by law. Counselors do not discriminate against clients, students, employees, supervisees, or research participants in a manner that has a negative impact on these persons.”

Anyone who has worked in the counseling profession knows that a counselor who cannot validate the client’s sense of identity and self-respect is going to be ineffective and possibly harmful to the client. This is especially true of someone working in a high school counseling setting, as Ms. Ward volunteered to do in her practicum. Gay adolescents who are struggling with their self-image and self-esteem are particularly vulnerable to messages (overt or implied) that they are less worthy human beings. Suicidal feelings are not uncommon. To abruptly cancel an appointment two hours before (as this student did) and require the client to be rescheduled with a different counselor cannot send anything other than a negative message, unless the reason for the cancellation were to be kept from the client. And being dishonest to a client is never appropriate. Thus, the course of action taken by this student was clearly irresponsible from a professional standpoint.

This student’s decision to enroll in a public university in order to enter the counseling profession, and to accept a practicum assignment in a public school setting, where the possibility of seeing gay or lesbian clients is highly likely, should have indicated that the student was willing to adhere to the standards of professional responsibility that prohibit client abandonment for personal reasons. Simply expecting that the client should be referred to a different counselor is not sufficient.

The most disturbing development in this situation is that the Michigan attorney general, Bill Schuette, recently filed a friend of the court brief obviously intended to support an appeal by the ADF and work against the university. This attorney general had an assistant who was fired for allegedly harassing a gay student at one of the universities whom he accused of promoting a ‘radical homosexual agenda.” In the brief, Schuette characterizes the university’s curriculum requirements as a “pretext to punish a disfavored religious belief.” This echoes the ADF’s characterization, by dismissing most of the judge’s reasoning and forcing the discussion into one about religious beliefs rather than professional conduct..

The filing by Schuette is disturbing because it uses inflammatory language and mischaracterizes the university’s motives, in order to justify attempts to dictate how counselors (and counselor education programs) may set standards of professional conduct. The goal here seems to be that one group’s values are favored over the wider public’s interests. There is no apparent connection to enforcement of any existing Michigan laws, which would seem to be the only justifiable reason for an attorney general to be filing such a brief.

For me, it’s not a problem if a person adopts a belief system that homosexuality is a sin. Under our First Amendment protections, such a person is free to express his or her opinions. (Indeed, Ms. Ward did so in an outspoken manner in course assignments, and was never given lower grades for doing so). However, when a person undertakes to provide professional services, he or she must engage in professional conduct that does not conflict with generally accepted professional standards and nondiscrimination laws and policies, It means that the individual with those beliefs must not attempt to impose them on others or withhold services from clients needing services solely because of those beliefs. People with those beliefs may appropriately present themselves as spiritual advisers to those of similar beliefs, but may not represent themselves as professional counselors unless they adhere to the standards of the counseling profession, which have been formulated with non-malificence and beneficence as their highest principles.

As a counselor educator, I will be watching developments in this area with a great deal of concern.

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