Religious Right Seeks Bible-Based Exemption from Public University Counseling Program's Ethics Standards

By Bathija, Sandhya | Church & State, April 2011 | Go to article overview

Religious Right Seeks Bible-Based Exemption from Public University Counseling Program's Ethics Standards


Bathija, Sandhya, Church & State


Kathleen LaTosch knows firsthand how important it is for counselors to treat all clients fairly and equally.

She runs Affirmations, a community center in downtown Detroit that serves the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered community. It is one of the only counseling services in the area, she says, where many LGBT clients feel comfortable.

"I know this because there was a time a year ago when we were short of counselors," LaTosch said. "We couldn't take clients into our program for about six weeks, so we started to offer suggestions from our referral list.

"But our clients didn't want to go anywhere but here," she continued. "They were willing to be on a waitlist 30 to 40 people deep in order to come here. ... When you're in counseling, you talk about some really personal, sensitive issues. it's a very vulnerable place, and you can't afford to bring any negativity into that."

LaTosch said that's why she and the staff at Affirmations couldn't sit on the sidelines and watch as an evangelical Christian student at a nearby public university demanded that she be allowed to graduate with a master's degree in counseling without being trained to treat all clients.

Julea Ward, a full-time public high school teacher and student at Eastern Michigan University, said she could not "affirm any behavior that goes against what the Bible says." She told university officials that she would always refer to other counselors all clients who seek counseling for sexual relationship issues that she believes to be "against the teachings of the Bible."

When the university dismissed Ward for refusing to counsel a gay client as part of an advanced course, she slapped the university with a lawsuit, alleging that her free speech and religious liberty rights had been violated.

The legal dispute has sparked widespread concerns. LaTosch's center, Affirmations, has signed on to a friend-of-the-court brief defending Eastern Michigan in Ward v. Wilbanks. The case is now before the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

LaTosch said many of the volunteer counselors at Affirmations come from the Eastern Michigan master's program.

"It's not a Christian-based school system," she said. "It's a public school, and there is no reason to graduate a student who discriminates."

Americans United has also filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, arguing that the Constitution permits the university to train its students to provide professional care to all clients, not just those who make choices that its students embrace.

"Public universities are expected to serve the whole community," said Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn in a press statement. "They have every right to set up non-discrimination policies that serve the public interest.

"Professional ethics standards forbid counselors to discriminate on the basis of their personal religious beliefs," Lynn continued. "The university has done the right thing by requiring its students to uphold those standards and treat all clients fairly and equally. We hope the appeals court agrees."

Critics such as Lynn say the case, which was filed by the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) on behalf of Ward, is yet another attempt by the Religious Right to attack public institutions of higher education.

The ADF, a Scottsdale, Ariz.-based organization founded by TV preachers, claims that the majority of professors dislike evangelical Christians and that students risk punishment if they present "an alternative, Christ-centered worldview."

To fight this alleged discrimination, the ADF operates the "Center for Academic Freedom," which strives to "end the unconstitutional persecution and coercive indoctrination of Christian students on public university campuses."

Last year, the group received a $9.2 million gift from an anonymous family to fund what it calls the "University Project. …

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