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State Legislation: When are the Therapeutic Needs of LGBTs Secondary to Counselors' Religious Convictions?

June 9, 2012
by Michael Shelton
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My previous blog posting described the paucity of addictions treatment facilities in the United States open to working with LGBTs.  A related concern is the availability of counselors and therapists demonstrating competence – and even willingness - to work with LGBTs, including those with addictions issues. Michigan’s “Julea Ward Freedom of Conscience Act” exemplifies this concern.

Julea Ward was in an Eastern Michigan University (EMU) counseling program and dismissed in March 2009 after she refused, as part of her training, to counsel a gay client.  She told school administrators that she could not “affirm any behavior that goes against what the Bible says.”[i]  During a school hearing on her case, she stated she would not abide by school standards when they contraindicated her religious beliefs.  In her ongoing lawsuit against the University, Ward is represented by the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), an organization the Southern Poverty Law Center considers one of the twelve “most influential anti-gay groups” in the country.[ii]

Tupac Hunter, A Michigan State Senator and one of the sponsors of the “Julea Ward Freedom of Conscience Act” wrote, “I believe a student should not be forced into a situation in which he/she would have to provide treatment that compromises their religious or moral convictions or requires them to conceal their values conflict in order to avoid expulsion from a degree program.  How is this good for the student or the client, especially? There is no dishonor to the profession nor harm done to the client by simply referring him/her to another individual who can best assist the client in meeting his/her established goals for counseling.”[iii]

Michigan’s proposed law is modeled heavily on a similar law passed in Arizona in 2011.  These “conscience clauses” prohibit public and private colleges, universities, junior colleges, and community colleges from disciplining or discriminating against a student in counseling, social work, and psychology programs because the student refuses to serve a client whose goals conflict with his or her sincerely held religious beliefs or moral convictions. According to David Kaplan, chief professional officer of the American Counseling Association (ACA), the organization that accredits EMU, “We train students to understand that the client is more important than they are.  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.”[iv] The ACA mandates that counselors are not to allow their personal values to intrude into their professional work.  Additionally, the Society for the Psychological Study of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Issues, a division of the American Psychological Association, cautioned that a “conscience clause…permits discrimination and exclusion of students from gaining competence in working with diverse populations. The legislation threatens psychology’s work toward multicultural competence, which has become an empirically based and ethical criterion for practice and training.”[v]

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As a LGBT person if my counselor was not comfortable with my sexuality I would prefer he/she let me know upfront and direct me to appropriate resources. That being said, a professional counselor needs to be just that: professional. I believe an appropriate response would be, "You are presenting issues for which I am not adequately trained, but I can refer you to someone who I think can better help you."

There is a deeper here as I see it. Universities that train persons in the psychotherapy professions need to take their "gatekeeper" role far more seriously.
Many students are obviously attempting to enter into a profession which simply may not suit their sensibilities and for which they will be ill-equipped to help their clients or patients.
Let me be very clear here. I take no issue with persons who have or claim to have religious practices. The problem emerges with religious fundamentalism of any stripe - Christian, Muslim, Hindu....
Fundamentalism, by definition, discourages and proscribes "change" - the very thing psychotherapy seeks to encourage and support. So the question is, "Is any type of religious fundamentalism" consistent with the Codes of Ethics of the psychotherapy professions or the various psychotherapeutic modalities we employ. I think the answer is a resounding "no".

Dealing with these "conservative laws" shouldn't be a problem. CACREP or any other other legitimate accrediting body should be cautious about accrediting counseling programs in states that implement these laws. Fundamentalist students should be steered toward the Bible Schools and preacher training institutions where they are surely best suited. To reiterate, the professors in our counselor training programs have a gatekeeper function which they must take seriously.

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"NALGAP: The Association of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Addiction Professionals and...