At question in Michigan is whether or not a Christian counseling student should be required to provide support to gay clients in violation of their religious beliefs. This week, the Michigan House passed HB 5040, the “Julea Ward Freedom Of Conscience Act,” which gives college students a pass from providing any kind of counseling that compromises their religious beliefs, including affirming gay clients:
A public degree or certificate granting college, university, junior college, or community college of this state shall not discipline or discriminate against a student in a counseling, social work, or psychology program because the student refuses to counsel or serve a client as to goals, outcomes, or behaviors that conflict with a sincerely held religious belief of the student, if the student refers the client to a counselor who will provide the counseling or services.
Julea Ward’s story doesn’t hold much merit for the issue at stake. She sued Eastern Michigan University after she was kicked out of her counseling graduate program — she refused to affirm a client’s gay orientation because it “goes against what the Bible says.” A federal district court judge dismissed her suit, ruling that the university “had a right and duty” to enforce the professional ethic rules that dictate its counseling accreditation. He added that Ward’s dismissal “was entirely due” to her “refusal to change her behavior” rather than her beliefs. The 11th Circuit similarly ruled against Jennifer Keeton, who experienced a similar situation at Augusta State University in Georgia, stating that “counselors must refrain from imposing their moral and religious values on their clients.”
By advancing this legislation, Michigan lawmakers are essentially attempting to circumvent — if not dictate — counseling ethical standards. While it’s very true that in a professional setting, a Christian counselor could defer a gay client to another counselor, there’s no guarantee that they will. Even the very act of deferring could add to the stigma and harm the client is already experiencing, let alone the potential that harmful ex-gay therapy might be offered instead. The ethical standards exist for a reason, and should HB 5040 become law, it would compromise the integrity of all counseling programs in the state of Michigan.
As activist Wayne Besen pointed when the legislation was first introduced, “counseling should be about the client, not the self-serving needs of the therapist.” But Michigan lawmakers have made clear this year how little concern they have for gay citizens. In December, they banned all domestic partnerships, and in November, they almost created a “license to bully” in schools. Through it all, Gov. Rick Snyder (R) has refused to even meet with LGBT press outlets.