Counseling Clash

Religious Right Seeks Bible-Based Exemption From Public University Counseling Program’s Ethics Standards

Kathleen LaTosch knows firsthand how important it is for counselors to treat all clients fairly and equally.

She runs Affirmations, a community center in downtown Detroit that serves the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered community. It is one of the only counseling services in the area, she says, where many LGBT clients feel comfortable.

“I know this because there was a time a year ago when we were short of counselors,” LaTosch said. “We couldn’t take clients into our program for about six weeks, so we started to offer suggestions from our referral list.

“But our clients didn’t want to go anywhere but here,” she continued. “They were willing to be on a waitlist 30 to 40 people deep in order to come here…. When you’re in counseling, you talk about some really personal, sensitive issues. It’s a very vulnerable place, and you can’t afford to bring any negativity into that.”

LaTosch said that’s why she and the staff at Affirmations couldn’t sit on the sidelines and watch as an evangelical Christian student at a nearby public university demanded that she be allowed to graduate with a master’s degree in counseling without being trained to treat all clients.

Julea Ward, a full-time public high school teacher and student at Eastern Michigan University, said she could not “affirm any behavior that goes against what the Bible says.” She told university officials that she would always refer to other counselors all clients who seek counseling for sexual relationship issues that she believes to be “against the teachings of the Bible.”

When the university dismissed Ward for refusing to counsel a gay client as part of an advanced course, she slapped the university with a lawsuit, alleging that her free speech and religious liberty rights had been violated.

The legal dispute has sparked widespread concerns. LaTosch’s center, Affirmations, has signed on to a friend-of-the-court brief defending Eastern Michigan in Ward v. Wilbanks. The case is now before the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

LaTosch said many of the volunteer counselors at Affirmations come from the Eastern Michigan master’s program.

“It’s not a Christian-based school system,” she said. “It’s a public school, and there is no reason to graduate a student who discriminates.”

Americans United has also filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, arguing that the Constitution permits the university to train its students to provide professional care to all clients, not just those who make choices that its students embrace.

“Public universities are expected to serve the whole community,” said Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn in a press statement. “They have every right to set up non-discrimination policies that serve the public interest.

“Professional ethics standards forbid counselors to discriminate on the basis of their personal religious beliefs,” Lynn continued. “The university has done the right thing by requiring its students to uphold those standards and treat all clients fairly and equally. We hope the appeals court agrees.”

Critics such as Lynn say the case, which was filed by the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) on behalf of Ward, is yet another attempt by the Religious Right to attack public institutions of higher education.

The ADF, a Scottsdale, Ariz.-based organization founded by TV preachers, claims that the majority of professors dislike evangelical Christians and that students risk punishment if they present “an alternative, Christ-centered worldview.”

To fight this alleged discrimination, the ADF operates the “Center for Academic Freedom,” which strives to “end the unconstitutional persecution and coercive indoctrination of Christian students on public university campuses.”

Last year, the group received a $9.2 million gift from an anonymous family to fund what it calls the “University Project.” The organization plans to match that grant and designate nearly $20 million to the campaign.

Bringing cases like Ward, critics say,is part of the ADF’s strategy to use religious liberty claims as a weapon in justifying discrimination in a variety of governmental settings.

Beginning in the mid-2000s, the ADF sued law schools across the country that refused to give the Christian Legal Society (CLS) official student recognition and funding, despite the fact that society chapters violated these universities’ non-discrimination policy. The CLS requires all its members to sign an evangelical statement of faith and bars students who engage in “unrepentant homosexual conduct” from joining.

When the ADF sued Hastings College of the Law, the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court. ADF attorneys alleged that the public college violated the religious beliefs of CLS students, but the Supreme Court disagreed, upholding the law school’s right to implement its nondiscrimination policy and striking a major blow to ADF strategy.

“In requiring CLS – in common with all other student organizations – to choose between welcoming all students and forgoing the benefits of official recognition, we hold, Hastings did not transgress constitutional limitations,” wrote Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in the Christian Legal Society v. Martinez decision. “CLS, it bears emphasis, seeks not parity with other organizations, but a preferential exemption from Hastings’ policy.”

Now, the ADF is fighting for that preferential exemption for Ward and others like her.

A self-described “orthodox Christian,” Ward refused to see a gay client as part of coursework. Her professor excused her in order to protect the client, but other school officials were notified so they could determine whether Ward had violated the counseling program’s ethical standards.

Eastern Michigan, like all other schools with accredited counseling programs, must abide by the American Counseling Association’s Code of Ethics and Standards of Practice and the American School Counselor Association’s Ethical Standards for School Counselors. These standards prohibit “imposing values that are inconsistent with counseling goals” and “discrimination based on…sexual orientation.” So-called “reparative therapy,” which seeks to change an individual’s sexual orientation,” is regarded as ineffective and potentially harmful.

The standards serve a gate-keeping function to ensure that those who receive counseling degrees are equipped to treat all people, said David Kaplan, chief professional officer for the American Counseling Association.

“We train students to understand that the client is more important than they are,” Kaplan told Church & State. “Just because someone has different values, doesn’t mean we can’t counsel them. We don’t have to agree with them, but we must accept them for who they are.”

During an official school hearing, Ward admitted she disagreed with the standards and would not be willing to follow them when they contradicted her religious beliefs. Subsequently, she was dismissed from the program.

The ADF sued, arguing that the university violated Ward’s rights.

But a federal district court disagreed, ruling in July 2010 that the university had a rational basis for adopting the standards and enforcing them.

Wrote District Judge George Caram Steeh, “[Ward’s] refusal to attempt learning to counsel all clients within their own value systems is a failure to complete an academic requirement of the program.”

The ADF has appealed the Ward case. Several Religious Right groups have rallied to Ward’s cause, including the Justice and Freedom Fund, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, TV preacher Pat Robertson’s American Center for Law and Justice and former Alabama judge Roy Moore’s Foundation for Moral Law – all which argue that university enforcement of the ethical standards is unconstitutional.

ADF Senior Counsel David French thinks the Ward case and one like it in Georgia will eventually go to the U.S. Supreme Court.

If so, Americans United will be ready. AU’s brief in theEastern Michiganlawsuit asserts that Ward’s religious liberty and free speech rights were not violated by the university.

“In this case,” said AU, “[Ward] seeks to employ her religious statements and beliefs to trump the curriculum of a public university’s counseling program, and to force that university to adopt an approach to counseling that would harm patients and contradict well-established professional norms. Although [Ward] is entitled to believe that counselors ought to bring their religious messages to sessions with patients, a public university is entitled to train all its students to focus on clients’ emotional needs – not counselors’ personal views.”

Ward’s religious beliefs, AU insisted, do not entitle her to undo a university’s counseling curriculum.

“A university would not be required to graduate a Jehovah’s Witness whose religious views prevented him from providing his clinical patients with necessary blood transfusions – even if he aced his written anatomy exam,” AU asserted. “Likewise, the University was entitled to expel [Ward] because her religious views prevented her from counseling clinical patients who wanted to discuss non-marital sex – no matter how sophisticated her work in the classroom.”

The AU brief was written by AU Litigation Counsel Gregory M. Lipper and AU Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan.