An Attack on Religion and Counseling

Does the state have the right to prevent people from training for particular careers because the state disagrees with their religious beliefs? U.S. District Judge George Steeh has made just such a ruling. Eastern Michigan University expelled Julea Ward from its master’s program in school counseling because Ms. Ward refused to undergo a reeducation program to silence her beliefs and to keep her convictions in check when counseling.

The flashpoint was Ms. Ward’s refusal to counsel homosexuals about relationships because such behaviors are not consistent with her religious beliefs. The dismissal of Ms. Ward’s lawsuit could have a chilling effect on religious freedom. The threat goes far beyond the issue of homosexuality. If the government can determine that some beliefs make a person unfit for a profession, then anyone who has an unpopular belief can be denied the opportunity to practice his or her own profession. After all, if the government can determine that personal beliefs can make a person ineligible to train for a particular profession, what is there to stop the government from forcing people out of their existing profession? This ruling is a threat to everyone’s freedom, no matter what one believes about homosexuality.

Judge Steeh ruled that Eastern Michigan had “a rational basis” for requiring students to counsel all possible clients. I will leave the constitutional law questions for the legal scholars. My concern is for the counseling profession and clients.

While I am neither a clinical psychologist, nor a counselor, I do have some graduate training in clinical psychology. I am confident that Judge Steeh’s ruling not only harms religious freedom, it will harm counseling and ultimately harm those who seek counseling. Proponents of the decision are attacking a belief system they find particularly odious, but they are also attacking the freedom of counselors to best meet people’s needs.

The issue is whether a given counselor should counsel any and every client. Historically, the answer to this question has been that counselors should not counsel every possible client. We all have biases. Sometimes a personal bias, religious or otherwise, would prevent a counselor from providing the high quality, neutral service that fully respects the client and the client’s right to self-determination. For example, I once heard a person who does marital therapy say that he did not counsel couples when the husband was physically abusive. This therapist believed that his strong negative feelings about abusive husbands would prevent him from counseling such couples well. The ethical approach for counselors in these situations is to refer clients to a therapist who will better meet their needs. To demand that counselors always be neutral regardless of their biases and convictions is to demand superhuman abilities.

Ironically, then, Ms. Ward was striving to treat homosexual clients with integrity and respect for their right of self-determination. Knowing that she would not be able to be supportive of homosexual behavior and relationships, she sought to allow homosexual clients to seek therapy from counselors who would be supportive. In my opinion, had Ms. Ward counseled homosexuals about relationships, this would have been unethical, her clients would not have received the neutral help they needed, and they may have been harmed.

The state has no business determining which biases are so unsavory that they must be changed through reeducation and which are benign. In the counseling room, any bias on the part of a counselor has the potential to harm certain clients. Counselors and therapists need the ability to refer clients to another professional when a personal bias could affect the clients’ treatment. Opponents of freedom of conscience may be able to use the power of the state to drive people with unpopular beliefs out of the counseling profession. However, the resulting profession will be less honest, less diverse, and less able to reduce human suffering.

Dr. Joseph Horton


Dr. Joseph J. Horton is professor of psychology at Grove City College and a researcher with The Center for Vision & Values.

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  • rakeys

    Where would a person with homosexual desires go if they wanted counseling about how to remain chaste and not engage in promiscuos affiars with other homosexuals?
    Should a person who believes that homosexual acts are OK tell them it is OK to “just do it”.
    Where should military people go for counseling? Should a pacifist be denied the right to counsel because they do not believe in war?
    Should a person who believes in divorce counsel couples who want to stay married?
    Should someone who believe in premarital sex counsel someone who wants to remain a virgin?

    There are always going to be people with differing views seeking counseling.
    Why is homosexuality different? And why you must believe that homosexual acts are OK in order to counsel?

  • eschator83

    There is dreadful power in the sexual economy, as we all know, but most of us are afraid to speak against it. The cure is simple, and the Moslems know it: deny the profitability of sexuality by prohibiting public sale and exposure.
    Do you suppose civilization and freedom would disappear if we banned pornographic publications, movies, websites, and clothing provocations or lack thereof? The economy would take a big hit–this is true–but it would survive. Probably there is economic sense to phase in the prohibition: first movies, then videos, then internet, then publications, to reduce the economic damage. Or it might be smarter to ban the clothing first, and lack of clothes, because then we could raise immediately some very serious money from fines, especially among movie, video, and web producers and actors.
    It is time to acknowledge sexual compulsion and obsession in all aspects, to treat it, and also to prohibit its public manifestation.