Recent court cases have illuminated some complex questions regarding how to deal with value conflicts in the counseling relationship. In Keeton v. Anderson-Wiley (2010) and Ward v. Wilbanks (2010,2012), students were dismissed from their counselor education programs at Augusta State University and Eastern Michigan University (EMU), respectively. The students, Keeton and Ward, declined to counsel lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transsexual (LGBT) clients because counseling these clients conflicted with their religious beliefs. Both Keeton and Ward intended to become school counselors. Keeton appealed her dismissal from the program at Augusta State University; a federal appellate court upheld the university's decision. Ward also appealed her dismissal, and initially the court granted summary judgment in favor of EMU. Ward appealed, and the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court remanded the case back to the district court for a jury trial. The trial was not held because a settlement was reached in December 2012.
As a result of these legal cases, a great deal of discussion has been generated regarding the issue of whether counselors can use their religious beliefs as the basis for referring LGBT clients as well as the broader question of whether referrals based on value conflicts are ever ethically appropriate. Counselors, counselor educators, and students who are seeking their own answers to these questions might expect to find guidance in codes of ethics and the professional literature.
Several standards in the ACA Code of Ethics (American Counseling Association [ACA], 2005) are relevant to the broader issue of value conflicts. Counselors are expected to be aware of their own values and "avoid imposing values that are inconsistent with counseling goals" (Standard A.4.b.). Counselors must practice only within the boundaries of their competence (Standard C.2.a.), and, if they "determine an inability to be of professional assistance to clients" (Standard A.11.b.), they should facilitate a referral to another provider. An additional standard, which has been applied to the specific question of religiously motivated referral of LGBT clients, is Standard C.5., which prohibits counselors from engaging in discrimination based on sexual orientation, among other protected classes. Much of the controversy regarding value-based referrals has centered on whether the phrase "inability to be of professional assistance" in Standard A.11.b. refers only to issues of competence or whether it is also intended to address value conflicts. Counselors seem to generally agree about competence-based referrals. When counselors are unable to provide effective services because attempting to do so would exceed their boundaries of competence, they are justified in referring (Remley & Herlihy, 2010). However, a question that remains is whether a counselor is considered to be "unable" or "unwilling" to provide services to a client when a referral is based on a conflict in values.
Some counselors and counselors-in-training who have strongly held religious beliefs have interpreted the ethical standards as providing support for a decision to refer LGBT clients. They have argued that, because they view same-sex relationships as immoral according to their religious beliefs, they cannot affirm these relationships in a counseling session. Therefore, they are unable to assist these clients effectively, and the ethically appropriate action is to refer them. The ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit in the Ward case appears to support that interpretation. The Court's opinion was that the ACA Code of Ethics (ACA, 2005) provision that refers to inability to be of professional assistance "expressly permits values-based referrals" (Ward v. Wilbanks, 2012, p. 11).
Those who interpret the ACA Code of Ethics (ACA, 2005) differently believe that refusing to counsel an LGBT client on relationship issues is discriminatory, and they point to the ethical standard that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation. …