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FIRST-PERSON: Must counselors affirm homosexuality?

ALEXANDRIA, La. (BP)–Must students affirm a behavior they believe is morally wrong in order to achieve a counseling degree? At least two public universities say yes and a federal judge agrees.

On July 26, federal Judge George Steeh rejected Julea Ward’s lawsuit that charged her expulsion from Eastern Michigan University’s counseling program amounted to an unconstitutional infringement on her religious freedom and free speech rights. Ward believes homosexuality is morally wrong.

“This is about behaviors that are appropriate or not appropriate within counseling,” Irene Ametrano, a professor of counseling at Eastern Michigan told USA Today. She asserted that the university’s policies were in line with the ethics code of the American Counseling Association (ACA). Eastern Michigan’s counseling programs, she said, couldn’t keep its accreditation if it violated the code.

The judge stipulated in his ruling that the ACA code of ethics was at the heart of his decision.

The rift between Ward and Eastern Michigan occurred in 2009 during a required counseling practicum. When Ward was assigned a client who had discussed his homosexual relationship in the past, she asked to refer the client to another counseling student. That set off a series of events that led to disciplinary hearings and her expulsion from the program.

Jennifer Keeton has filed a suit similar to Ward’s in an effort to stay enrolled in the counseling program at Augusta State University.

According to Keeton’s suit, Augusta State wants her to undergo a re-education program intended to change her religious belief that homosexuality is a behavior that is morally wrong. Since the suit has yet to be litigated I can only speculate as to the university’s defense of their actions. That said, given the outcome of Ward’s suit, Augusta State would be foolish not to cite the ACA code of ethics.

It seems that the ACA Code of Ethics is at the heart of the counseling matter. The most recent edition of the code, approved in 2005, consists of 19 pages of rules to be embraced by members of the ACA. After reading the ACA code (yes, I read all 19 scintillating pages) I found that the rules are subject to at least some measure of interpretation.

In Section A.4.b under “Personal Values,” the ACA states, “Counselors are aware of their own values, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors and avoid imposing values that are inconsistent with counseling goals. Counselors respect the diversity of clients, trainees, and research participants.”

It seems to me that Ward was self-aware concerning her belief about homosexuality and, not wanting to impose her values, asked that the client with possible homosexual issues be referred to another counselor.

Ward’s action seems consistent with Section A.11.b, titled “Inability to Assist Clients,” which says, “If counselors determine an inability to be of professional assistance to clients” the counselor should refer the client to another counselor. Ward did not believe she could provide help to the individual she was assigned to counsel, thus she asked for a referral.

The only section that can remotely be applied to Ward’s situation is Section 5 on “Nondiscrimination.” The rule states, “Counselors do not condone or engage in discrimination based on age, culture, disability, ethnicity, race, religion/spirituality, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, marital status/partnership, language preference, socioeconomic status, or any basis proscribed by law. Counselors do not discriminate against clients, students, employees, supervisees, or research participants in a manner that has a negative impact on these persons.”

In one sentence the ACA says do not “engage” in discrimination. In the next sentence the ACA says do not discriminate “in a manner that has a negative impact.” So which is it? I would argue that Ward seeking to refer the client with possible homosexual issues did so in such fashion so as to not negatively impact the client.

I have to point out the inclusion of “language preference” on the ACA’s list of reasons not to discriminate renders the list ridiculous. How is a counselor supposed to help a client that prefers a language that counselor does not understand? Does the counselor have to provide an interpreter? Does the client? Wouldn’t it make more sense to refer the client to a counselor that can speak the language of preference?

What is most telling concerning the ACA Code of Ethics is Section A.9.b titled “Counselor Competence, Choice, and Referral,” which relates to end-of-life counseling. It states, “Recognizing the personal, moral and competence issues related to end-of-life decisions, counselors may choose to work or not to work with terminally ill clients who wish to explore their end-of life options. Counselors provide appropriate referral information to ensure that clients receive the necessary help.”

According to the ACA, a counselor can choose to refer a terminally ill patient if the counselor, for instance, is morally opposed to discussing physician-assisted suicide — or other end-of-life options. It seems that a counselor’s moral compass is acknowledged by the ACA as a reason not to counsel someone.

Nowhere in the ACA Code of Ethics does it state that a counselor has to treat every client that walks in his or her door. So long as the counselor provides an appropriate referral and does so in a way that does not denigrate the client, he or she has complied with the letter and spirit of the ACA code.

Judge George Steeh, along with the professors at Eastern Michigan and Augusta State, need to read the ACA Code of Ethics again, and this time more comprehensively. Nothing in the ACA code indicates that a counselor must affirm any behavior they believe is wrong in order to be a licensed counselor.

It would seem to me, based on the way Ms. Ward and Ms. Keeton have been treated, that Eastern Michigan and Augusta State are the ones that have transgressed the ACA’s code.
Kelly Boggs is a weekly columnist for Baptist Press and editor of the Baptist Message (www.baptistmessage.com), newsjournal of the Louisiana Baptist Convention.

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