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Legislation in Michigan Senate would allow discrimination in counseling


Two Michigan state Senators have proposed legislation which would allow counseling students to decline to counsel some clients because doing so would violate their “sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction.”

The legislation is a response to the ongoing case of former Eastern Michigan University student Julea Ward. Ward was removed from a counseling program after refusing to counsel a gay student about his relationships. She said she could not do that as it would be encouraging or validating a “lifestyle” she did not condone of believe in because of her Christian faith. Ward transferred the student to another counselor, but soon found herself being booted from the university. She sued in federal court, but thus far the courts have ruled that EMU’s counseling education program was within its rights to boot her.

But Detroit Democratic Sen. Tupac Hunter says Ward was “discriminated against” by the university. That is why he agreed to co-sponsor the legislation with Grand Rapids area Republican Sen. Mark Jansen.

“[Ward] was met with I feel an inappropriate response whereby she was penalized for having her own moral conviction,” Hunter told the Michigan Messenger. “The legislation was crafted to do exactly what it says. To prohibit an individual who is in one of those programs who has a value conflict from being discriminated against.”

Similar “conscience” bills has been introduced in the state legislatures in previous years which would have allowed pharmacists and doctors to decline to provide services based on moral convictions. Those bills have always died in the legislative process. Opponents of the legislation noted that if passed it would have allowed, for example, a Catholic pharmacist to refuse to fill a prescription for birth control pills or the so-called “morning after pill.”

While Hunter says the legislation is not about allowing counselors to discriminate against gays, but rather is broadly structured to respect the moral convictions and religious beliefs of counseling students. But he said he sees limits to the legislation.

Asked if a white nationalist who was an adherent of a brand of Christianity called Christian Identity would be allowed to invoke their sincerely held religious beliefs to refuse to counsel a person of color, Hunter replied, “No. That is where I draw the line.

“You pose a scenario that some one could suggest that’s like being discriminated against because of sexuality,” said Hunter. “When I believe that there is a moral value, what I believe, that is one thing. To say that, you know, that sexuality is on the same level as an issue of racism, that is a debate we need to have.”

Hunter said the Bible prohibits homosexual activity but does not support racism. Asked if under his scenario he weren’t setting universities and colleges up to be the arbitrators of which religious values were and were not valid, Hunter said, “No.”

Civil rights activists were quick to pounce on the legislation and the Detroit senator’s statements.

“All respected mental health organizations say that homosexuality is not a disease that can be treated,” says Wayne Besen, executive director of Truth Wins Out, a national organization that works to counter the effects of ex-gay counseling or reparative therapy promoted by many churches. “Any counseling that rejects coming out as an option is by nature inappropriate, unhealthy and damaging to the client. Furthermore, the counseling should be about the client, not the self-serving needs of the therapist.”

Equality Michigan, an LGBT rights group based in Detroit, opposes the legislation.

“What is frightening about Senator Hunter’s bill is that just about any bias could be argued to qualify as a ‘sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction,’” says Emily Dievendorf, policy director of Equality Michigan. “Any bias would, under this bill, allow counselors to refuse help to individuals seeking their guidance. It is shameful and sad that the desire to hurt the gay community was the motivation for the bill in the first place. Creating broad flexibility in our law to permit discrimination endangers all people. If this bill becomes law, we will see individuals in crisis being refused counseling due to their race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, sex, socio-economic status – you name it.”

“This would set a very dangerous precedent. If the Christian therapist can reject gay clients, why can’t a fundamentalist mail carrier elect not to deliver letters advertising concerts for the Gay Men’s Chorus? What is happening in Michigan could create a chaotic and divisive situation where fundamentalists are exempt from laws that govern the general public,” says Besen. “The law is meant to protect a person’s right to worship according to conscience. Unless the counselor is forbidden from such worship, his or her rights are not being violated. The counseling profession by nature is one where an expert provides advice to people with whom they may personally disagree. If a client is told by such a perceived expert that they are unfit to be treated, such unprofessional behavior and moral judgement can damage the client.”

Dievendorf also raises safety concerns associated with denying services to counseling clients.

“This bill also threatens lives through potential delays in access to counseling and even lacks requirements to document the personal bias that is supposed to enable counselors to deny treatment,” she said. “Imagine the potential psychological harm when a client is denied or delayed services because of a counselor’s personal distaste – will we see more self-harm or suicides? We all know how harmful discrimination can be. Senator Hunter is now trying to promote it.”

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