By Suzanne Normand Blackwood
When master’s counseling program student Julea Ward, citing her Christian beliefs, refused to accept a client whose issue concerned a lesbian relationship, Ward referred the woman to another counselor.
Her supervisor at Eastern Michigan University permitted the referral, but Ward was expelled from the program after she declined to go through “remediation.”
Forcing counselors to choose between their faith and a degree or their vocation is the kind of decision Liberty Counsel and the American Association of Christian Counselors hope to eliminate in a new proposal they want lawmakers to adopt.
The Counselors’ Bill of Rights would offer such protections as allowing counselors to identify themselves as “Christian” when advertising their services and to incorporate religious principles in their counseling should the clients desire it.
Several court cases in recent years, including one that could soon be headed to the U.S. Supreme Court, have underscored the need to protect the rights of counselors.
Liberty Counsel’s founder and chairman, Mat Staver, said his organization will soon lobby lawmakers to adopt the Counselors’ Bill of Rights as law.
The law would also protect counselors from being forced by government or any other entity to embrace anti-Christian values.
Additionally, said Staver, counselors would be allowed to make values-based referrals.
Values-based referrals also protect clients
Staver said protecting the right to make values-based referrals is important for both the counselors and the clients. Referrals may be necessary to protect either the religious interests of the counselors or the clients.
Jeremy Tedesco, an attorney with Alliance Defending Freedom, explained that values-based referrals, even if they are initially intended to protect the interests of the counselors, also protect the interests of the clients.
“The notion that counselors’ values have no bearing on the counseling relationship is preposterous,” said Tedesco.
“How could it not?” he asked.
Tedesco said the counseling profession “broadly allows for referrals.” Referring to the American Counseling Association’s guidelines, he said referrals are allowed under other circumstances if they are in the clients’ best interest.
Tedesco said it is sad that a law would be necessary to clarify the rights of counselors to make values-based referrals.
“I think the referral standards are intentionally left raw and open-ended,” he said. “A lot of this is about professional judgment.
“The bottom line is the profession should trust the counselors who are licensed to make those judgments. In your professional judgment, you don’t think you’re going to be the best counselor.”
Tedesco was the lead attorney defending Julea Ward in the Eastern Michigan University case. The university agreed to settle for a sum of money and remove the expulsion from Ward’s record.
The Ward case led to the passage of a bill by the Arizona legislature that protects counseling students from any disciplinary action by their universities should they decide to make values-based referrals.
A similar bill, the Julea Ward Freedom of Conscience Act, was proposed in the Michigan legislature but died in committee in 2012. The Counselors’ Bill of Rights would offer similar protection to that of the Arizona law.
Lawsuits aim to protect counselors
Liberty Counsel recently petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to hear Pickup v. Brown, a case challenging a California law that bans licensed counselors from incorporating sexual-orientation change efforts into therapy with minors.
Staver said the law infringes on the constitutional rights of counselors and should be struck down.
Liberty Counsel petitioned the Supreme Court to hear Pickup v. Brown after the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco upheld the law. The decision prompted a strong dissent by three judges.
The Ninth Circuit’s opinion conflicts with the court’s own prior decisions as well as Supreme Court decisions, Staver said. He noted the Ninth Circuit ruled that another law prohibiting doctors from endorsing the medical benefits of marijuana was an infringement on free speech.
“It’s not only an affront to free speech, it’s an affront to religious freedom,” Staver said.
The Ninth Circuit has granted Liberty Counsel’s motion to stay the decision pending Supreme Court review, meaning the law will remain blocked pending the appeal.
Liberty Counsel has filed two similar cases, King v. Christie and Doe v. Christie, that challenge a similar law passed recently in New Jersey. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie declined to comment regarding the lawsuits.
Washington, Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, Minnesota, Maine, Wisconsin, Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia have proposed similar laws, although the bills in Virginia and Maryland failed recently.
Staver said Liberty Counsel would challenge any other laws passed that are similar to the ones in California and New Jersey.
The Counselors’ Bill of Rights would specifically protect counselors who integrate biblical principles with counseling for clients who want to eliminate same-sex attractions.
Counselors should be ‘vigilant’
Staver said he is not aware of any cases in which licensing boards have disciplined counselors for incorporating sexual-orientation change efforts into therapy. However, he said, the California and New Jersey laws force those states’ licensing boards to view violations of the laws as ethical violations.
“The law makes it an ethical violation,” regardless of the client’s satisfaction and progress, he said.
“This is really trying to go after the licensed counselor profession, the parents and the minors,” said Staver.
“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” added Tedesco, saying he expects to see more cases like these and the Julea Ward case in the future.
Tedesco encouraged counselors to get involved in the decision-making bodies in their professions.
“Counselors who are licensed and aspiring counselors need to be vigilant about their rights,” he said.