Eastern Michigan University has agreed to settle a suit with counseling student Julea Ward who insisted that she could not counsel somebody who was gay without condemning their sexual orientation. When the program expelled her for violating counseling ethics, she sued (with support from the anti-gay Alliance Defending Freedom), and though a district court originally dismissed her complaint, the 6th Circuit ruled in her favor. EMU has agreed to pay a settlement and remove the expulsion from her record.
Ward argued that it was a violation of her religious beliefs to affirm a gay or lesbian client’s sexual orientation, but claimed she could counsel them on anything else. When such a client sought relationship counseling, she insisted that she should be able to refer that client to another counselor. EMU faculty argued that this constituted two ethics violations: “imposing values that are inconsistent with counseling goals” and “engaging in discrimination based on sexual orientation.” The 6th Circuit argued that “tolerance is a two-way street” for religious beliefs and that there was no negative impact on the client because the client never knew of the referral.
Unfortunately, the circumstances of the artificial counseling environment that benefited Ward in this case do not reflect the negative impact her approach could easily make in reality, which in turn would reflect on the university’s reputation. The American Psychological Association explains that sexual orientation defines an “essential component of personal identity” for many people. A gay client could start therapy with Ward for a different issue and face her rejection should his concerns arrive at an intersection with his gay identity. If Ward simply avoided serving gay and lesbian clients to prevent this from happening, then she would be engaging in discrimination based on sexual orientation.
This summer, a federal judge in Georgia ruled against a student who faced a similar conflict in the counseling program at Augusta State University. Judge J. Randal Hall took more careful note of the counseling impact of condemning homosexuality and accused student Jennifer Keeton of conflating “personal and professional values.” By the same standard, Ward is equally guilty of imposing her personal values over what the professional ethics of counseling demand on the question of sexual orientation. Unfortunately, conservatives will now champion her victory to further obfuscate the psychological importance of affirmation for gays and lesbians.