The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit heard arguments today in Ward v. Wilbanks, a case where a graduate student, Julea Ward, is challenging her removal from Eastern Michigan University's counseling program because she refused to counsel lesbian, gay and bisexual clients on any issues relating to same-sex relationships during her clinical training. The student was training to become a school counselor.
The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Michigan have filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting EMU. The issue is not whether EMU's students are entitled to their personal beliefs. They surely are. Rather, the issue is whether EMU may require those who enroll in its program to abide by the American Counseling Association's Code of Ethics, which forbids counselors from discriminating in their practice, or imposing their own values, attitudes and beliefs on their clients.
The answer to that question is surely yes.
High school counselors play an especially critical role for many adolescents. Students should be able to trust they can come to their school counselor for help, free from discrimination or judgment. School counselors are important sources of support for LGBT students, who all too often face rejection and discrimination from their families and peers. A national survey released last year found that nearly nine out of 10 LGBT students experienced harassment at school in the past year and nearly two-thirds felt unsafe because of their sexual orientation. These students should not have to fear that they will be turned away by someone whose job is to provide them with support and guidance. Such a rejection sends the hurtful message, "I cannot help you because of who you are."
The issues are not limited to high school counselors or gay students, however. If the plaintiff prevails, an EMU student who does not believe in interfaith marriage could refuse to counsel interfaith couples as part of her clinical training, and an EMU student who believes a woman's place is in the home could refuse to counsel a woman struggling with work-family balance.
EMU asks its graduate students learn the ethical rules of the profession they are training to join, and to live up to those ethical obligations while participating in the school's clinical program. A mental health professional must be able to set aside any personal prejudice in order to provide the best care possible to her patients.
By requiring its counseling students to meet the University's curriculum standards and the ACA's Code of Ethics, EMU is ensuring its students are prepared to enter the counseling field and respectfully carry out their professional duties.