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Does a Christian counselor have a right to refuse to counsel someone who is gay?

December 14, 2012 - Andrea Johnson
Here's something I've found myself wondering about: would the legalization of gay marriage threaten religious liberties?

A woman named Julea Ward was kicked out of a counseling program at Eastern Michigan University three years ago when she refused to counsel a gay man about his relationship with his partner. Ward said she would be willing to counsel the man about anything except his romantic relationships and referred him to another counselor who was comfortable speaking about his relationship problems. Ward said she couldn't do otherwise in good conscience because of her Christian beliefs. The university said she had violated the American Counseling Association's code of ethics and expelled her. Ward sued. Earlier this month the university decided to settle the lawsuit out of court, reportedly for $75,000. The settlement means the university's policy will remain intact and future grad students in the counseling program will also be required to counsel gays and lesbians about their relationships.

This is a likely scenario if gay marriage is passed. I can see doctors, teachers and counselors, as well as adoption agencies, wedding planners and caterers being penalized if they refuse their services to gays. I can't see a clergyman being penalized for refusing to perform a gay marriage, which would surely violate constitutional protections guaranteeing freedom of religious expression. On the other hand, I can easily see organizations that are affiliated with churches and receive tax dollars being required to provide insurance for the same sex spouse of an employee. Should there be protections in place for religious people who don't want to serve gay couples? If there are, wouldn't that violate the rights of the gay couple to be served on an equal basis with heterosexual couples?

Personally, I think Ward acted responsibly in refusing to serve the gay patient and in referring him to someone who would be better able to help him. Feeling as she did, she likely could not have counseled him effectively. The university seems to be effectively arguing that anyone with deeply held Christian beliefs is not suited for a career as a counselor. Ward was training to be a school counselor and she likely would have found herself counseling one or more gay teens in her career, so the university might have a point.

I think cases like this one will come up more and more often as more states legalize gay marriage and the Supreme Court prepares to hear two cases involving gay marriage rights.


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