Should a counselor or therapist be required to serve clients whose lives they find objectionable?
That's the question at the heart of a conflict heating up in Michigan over whether counselors can refuse to counsel gay clients if they hold religious objections to homosexuality.
In 2009, Julea Ward, then a master's student at Eastern Michigan University, asked for a student assigned to her for counseling to be reassigned due to her religious objections to the student's homosexual relationship. Ward was subsequently dismissed from the university for violating the American Counseling Association's Code of Ethics by declining to counsel the student. She is suing, claiming her constitutional rights have been violated.
Now Michigan's legislature is wading in. Their House passed HB 5040 June 12, the "Julea Ward freedom of conscience act," which prohibits public colleges from punishing students who refuse to provide counseling or therapy to clients if doing so conflicts with their personal religious beliefs.
LGBT and civil liberties groups (including the ACLU) have lined up against the legislation, according to the Huffington Post:
While the legislation has gained the support of the Michigan Family Forum and the state's Attorney General, it has also attracted a diverse coalition opposing the bill. Equality Michigan, an LGBT group said on their website that the bill "threatens clients seeking counseling with rejection based on their race, relationship status, and faith, or, yes, because of their sexual orientation" and "sends the message that medical decisions can be based on religious and personal beliefs and not on what's in the best interest of the patient."
The legislation also has also come under fire from a variety of organizations. The American Civil Liberties Union, The National Organization for Women and state educational institutions and professional groups including The Michigan School of Professional Psychology, the Michigan School Counselor Association, the Michigan Counseling Association, the Council on Social Work Education, the National Association of Social Workers and the Michigan Association of Social, the Presidents' Council of Public Universities of Michigan and Western Michigan University all oppose the measure.
I'll raise essentially the same question I raised when we were looking at a photographer's refusal to shoot a gay wedding: Why on earth would any gay, bisexual or transgendered person want to get counseling from a woman who has moral objections to their very sexual identities? What level of quality of service is some college kid struggling with his or her sexual identity going to get from some religious fundamentalist being forced to choke back her bile in order to help them in the manner American Counseling Association's code demands? Would any parent want their struggling gay teen to be seen by this woman? Is sending any gay person to Ward for counseling "in the best interests of the patient"? What is the actual fight here?
Equality Michigan doesn't help matters by trying to lump in counseling and therapy with medical treatment. A doctor's religious beliefs shouldn't affect his physical ability to provide appropriate medical services (though the question of whether or not you'd want to risk it remains). A therapist's attitude toward a person's sexual identity has to color his or her advice, no matter what "code of ethics" the authorities hold over the therapist's head.
Really, what Ward's opposition wants is for Ward to stop objecting to homosexuality or to not be a counselor, neither of which should be their call at this point. If Ward is able to perform the functions of a counselor, let the market decide if there is a place for a woman engaging in her behavior. A college may not be able to refuse giving her a diploma, but it should be able to refuse to hire her as an employee on the basis of her inability to serve a good chunk of its customers.
There is a significant amount of fear about the continued existence of ex-gay therapy, but that is a cultural issue, not a government issue (though California is looking to ban ex-gay therapy for minors). The ex-gay movement is losing badly. American culture has clearly chosen against them. Freaking out over the extreme anomaly Ward represents is not a good use of anybody's time.
The law, though, is stupid (we know this because it's named after a person). The state's legislature has no place dictating college academic standards in this fashion, but that's the price for having colleges funded by the government in the first place. They will be subjected to the whims of whatever political faction has the most power.