Counseling and Religious Freedom

La Shawn Barber by La Shawn Barber on February 23rd, 2012

This is article 23 of 61 in the topic Courts

Julea WardReligious freedom is a precious thing, especially in a world bloated with politically correct pabulum. But that freedom is not absolute. Unlike freedom of belief, it is subject to restrictions. For example, you can sincerely believe your religion requires you to have multiple wives or to kill those who blaspheme your god, but you can’t legally practice those beliefs in the United States.

The government must balance the general welfare of society against religious freedom, and the government certainly has a compelling interest in barring things like polygamy and faith-based murder. But what standard applies when a Christian student at a taxpayer-supported university seeking a state license refuses to affirm or validate homosexual relationships or heterosexual extramarital affairs, both of which violate biblical teachings?

Julea Ward was a graduate-level counseling student at Eastern Michigan University (EMU) when she was expelled for asking her faculty supervisor to refer a homosexual client to another student. (Chuck Colson discussed Ward’s case in this BreakPoint commentary.)

For three years, Ward had made it clear to her professors that her Christian beliefs prevented her from affirming homosexual clients’ behavior, which violated her religion’s tenets. EMU teaches students in the counseling program to affirm their clients’ values during sessions, although students have the option of referring clients based on values. Ward’s professors didn’t like it, but she was allowed to continue her studies.

Near the end of her program, in a practicum, Ward was asked to counsel a homosexual client. She requested either a referral or that the school permit her to begin counseling and make a referral if the subject of same-sex relationships came up. EMU referred the client to another student, and Ward met with her supervisor for their weekly meeting. The supervisor expressed disappointment and scheduled an informal review. Faculty members gave Ward the choice of dropping out of the program or requesting a formal review. She chose the review.

The school charged Ward with violating two provisions of the American Counseling Association’s (ACA) code ethics: one against imposing values on clients “inconsistent with counseling goals” and one against discrimination based on sexual orientation. EMU expelled her.

Ward sued, claiming that EMU violated her First and Fourteenth Amendment rights. The trial court ruled against her, but last month, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled in her favor (22 pages in PDF). The court noted that EMU didn’t have a no-referral policy, and practicum students were allowed to request values-based referrals.

In fact, Ward had sought to avoid imposing her values on homosexual clients. She was willing to counsel these clients, but not if she had to affirm or validate their behavior. The court found there was enough evidence for a reasonable jury to determine that Ward was expelled because of her religious beliefs.

The ruling reads, “Although the university submits it dismissed Ward from the program because her request for a referral violated the ACA code of ethics, a reasonable jury could find otherwise—that the code of ethics contains no such bar and that the university deployed it as a pretext for punishing Ward’s religious views and speech.”

Not only does the ACA code expressly permit values-based referrals, but EMU’s textbooks on counseling teach that a sound counseling practice allows for values-based referrals: “If the client selects goals that severely conflict with the helper’s values . . . the helper may decide to refer the client.”

If all this is true, why was Ward expelled? Examining the facts, anybody with eyes can see that she was expelled because she is a Christian who opposes homosexual behavior. Would EMU have expelled Ward if she’d referred a married client who wanted her to affirm his adultery? Does EMU’s after-the-fact no-referral policy require a Muslim counselor to affirm a Jewish client’s values, or vice versa? Of course not. It’s clear that the faculty members’ motives were based on Ward’s faith.

The case isn’t over, and at the next stage, the jury might conclude that EMU did not discriminate against Ward. Regardless, the case has far-reaching implications. As radical homosexual activism continues to clash with traditional Christianity, it’s not far-fetched to assume that speaking out against homosexuality will become a “hate crime.”

By now it’s a cliché, but the term “slippery slope” exists for a reason. Who would have imagined a few decades ago the normalization of homosexuality and the idea of two men getting “married”? States have passed laws redefining marriage, so is it difficult to imagine that in our lifetimes, preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ will be against the law?

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