This week, the 11th Circuit ruled against Marcia Walden, a counselor for the Center for Disease Control’s Employee Assistance Program in Atlanta. The CDC had laid her off after a lesbian client complained that Walden’s need to refer her to another counselor for religious reasons made her feel “judged and condemned.” Walden sued, arguing that she was removed for her job in violation of her First Amendment religious freedom.
In the decision, the Court ruled that Walden was rightly fired — not for her religious beliefs, but for the way she insisted on imposing them on the gay clients they impacted:
We accept that Ms. Walden’s sincerely held religious beliefs prohibit her from encouraging or supporting same-sex relationships through counseling… Instead, the record is clear that Dr. Chosewood and Ms. Zerbe removed Ms. Walden because of the manner in which she handled Ms. Doe’s referral, and because they were concerned that she would behave the same way if a similar situation were to arise in the future. And, significantly, Ms. Walden testified that it was not part of her “religious beliefs” to tell clients, including Ms. Doe, that she could not counsel them due to her religious beliefs or personal values. Instead, she said she wanted “to be honest with my clients.” [...]
Ms. Walden contends she did not, in fact, insist upon voicing her objections to same-sex relationships in connection with future referrals. Instead, she merely refused to state that she did not have experience in relationship counseling whenreferring clients. But she also did not volunteer an alternative approach to future referrals.
Given how heated the rhetoric around so-called “religious liberty” has become, this decision is important to highlight, as it distinguishes between what a person believes and how a person acts upon those beliefs. Similar to the recent case when the 11th Circuit ruled against an Augusta State University counseling student who was expelled for violating professional ethics when it came to gay clients, Walden’s compulsion to inform patients that she does not approve of their lifestyles oversteps her religious rights. As the decision points out, Walden’s actions made an already vulnerable client “feel worse.”
Individuals have a right to believe and practice whatever religion they choose, but that does not entitle them to compromise the integrity of their work or the rights of others.