Some “light” weekend reading: A look at the Ward case

Ethical dilemmas: They HURT.

We talked ever-so-briefly about the Ward case in class last fall–so briefly that I can’t even remember which class it was. The case and the ethical implications seemed pretty important, so I was kind of bummed that we didn’t get to discuss it further, especially since my gut reaction to what I knew was so strong.

What I knew was this: In 2009, Julea Ward, an outspoken evangelical Christian, refused to counsel a gay client during her practicum and instead referred this client to another counselor. She cited moral reasons for doing so. Eastern Michigan kicked her out of the counseling program, and she then sued the school. The court ruled in favor of Eastern Michigan in 2010. In my head at the time, she was wrong, wrong, wrong for refusing to see this client, for many reasons.

Of course, nothing is as black-and-white as it seems, and this case is no exception. Additional details I learned when researching: Ward was training to become a school counselor. She never saw the client, referring before their first appointment. She discussed the matter with her supervisor, and shortly after was reviewed by several professors. Ward opted for a formal hearing as a result of the review, during which she stated that she would not “affirm” any belief that goes against biblical teachings while counseling clients. Eastern Michigan dismissed her from the program for violating the ACA’s Code of Ethics. Julea Ward sued the school, and the court ruled in the school’s favor. Finally, in January of this year, the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled that the case may return to district court. To be continued!

Yikes. So, do you feel like those people in the picture yet?

Obviously, this case has so many gray areas. The issues at hand, at least as I see them:

The right to refer a client. Of course, counselors can refer clients because certain issues are outside of their scope of practice, or because some client issue hits a liiiiiitttttlllleee too close to home for the counselor and the counselor may be at risk to do more harm than good. But my hangup is this: Can automatically referring a large segment of the population be right? LGBT clients would be considered diverse clients, and for a counselor to refer automatically for a diversity issue seems to be at odds with the counseling field’s embrace of diversity. And one last thing that bothers me about the referral issue: Ms. Ward was training to become a school counselor. Although I can’t find information on whether she intended to work in a public or private school, I am deeply uneasy about a public school counselor roundly referring students for religious objections.

The role of the counselor. Thanks to the New York Times for pointing out this issue. Does a counselor affirm a client’s beliefs,  or to help them navigate their issue on their own terms? Most counselors, regardless of religion, would agree that murder is morally wrong, yet counselors work with criminals convicted of murder  and I doubt they’re affirming those client actions. The counselors instead help lead the client to a better way of living, based on that client’s beliefs. Carl Rogers said some similar things in the reading of On Becoming a Person I just did.  In my program, we’re told over and over to “meet the client where they are,” meaning approach the client with empathy, recognize their basic human dignity regardless of their lifestyle and our own values, and build from there. I don’t think you can do that if you flat-out refuse to address something integral to the client’s self.

Freedom of religion on BOTH sides. Obviously, the client’s religious beliefs and values must be respected. But so should the counselor’s, so I can see why Ms. Ward felt very, very attacked by the Eastern Michigan faculty. From what I’ve read in official documents, she often got into debates with her professors, and it doesn’t sound like they always handled it in the best way possible. This has been the hardest for me to work through, especially since I’m not an evangelical Christian. If I was, I may feel like I was being asked to change my own beliefs and values in order to proceed with my career. My biggest thought here is that maybe  a pastoral counseling program would have been a better fit for Ms. Ward, and a faculty member could have sat her down and brought up this option early in her studies. (And I don’t know much about this type of program, so maybe that’s an invalid option?) And underneath that all…

Values imposition. To me, automatically referring certain clients on moral grounds sounds like obvious values imposition. Sure, the counselor is not affirming the objectionable issue, and the client will get more appropriate care, but what kind of message is that counselor sending to the client? Probably a pretty strong message that whatever the client is doing is wrong, immoral, bad, disgusting, or whatever–possibly during the darkest hour of a client’s life, when that person most needs help. Out of all of the ethical implications, this one bothers me the most. No counseling is ever truly values-free, but I don’t think we can meet our clients where they are if we’re judging them.

In the end, I’m siding with the school and the ACA. I strongly feel that Ms. Ward’s refusal to counsel certain types of clients and client issues on moral grounds is wrong, and, well, she violated the ACA Code of Ethics. Her school is CACREP-accredited, so I know she was learning the Code and learning about issues particular to counseling–besides, ignorance would be no excuse. Perhaps this type of counseling was not right for her. I’m curious to see how this case continues to play out and how it affects our profession.

I would love to hear your takes on this! I’m not a lawyer or an ethicist, so I’m sure I missed some points and possibly misunderstood others, and sometimes it’s hard to leave the gut reaction behind. What do you think?

Sources and resources:

Eastern Michigan University Information on Case

Pew Research Center Rights of Conscience vs. Civil Rights

Counseling Today Update

New York Times: A Counselor’s Convictions Put Her Profession on Trial



One thought on “Some “light” weekend reading: A look at the Ward case

  1. Pingback: In good conscience? “Convictions of conscience” clauses « Feet in Two Worlds

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