AACC Statement on Michigan HB 5040

The American Association of Christian Counselors (AACC) issued a statement today on Michigan legislation HB 5040, also referred to by some as the “freedom of conscience” legislation. Here is the statement in its entirety:

“Freedom of Conscience Act” Protects Christian Counselors through Values-based Referrals

Last week, the Michigan House of Representatives passed HB 5040, named the “Julea Ward Freedom of Conscience Act.” This legislation affirms a counseling student’s “freedom of conscience” from providing mental health services that contradict and/or conflict with personal religious beliefs, including affirmative gay therapy. The law, in part, reads as follows:

A public degree or certificate granting college, university, junior college, or community college of this state shall not discipline or discriminate against a student in a counseling, social work, or psychology program because the student refuses to counsel or serve a client as to goals, outcomes, or behaviors that conflict with a sincerely held religious belief of the student, if the student refers the client to a counselor who will provide the counseling or services.

Instead of requiring counselors-in-training to continue providing therapy to a client whose value system is in direct conflict with their own, the bill offers another option called values-based referrals. This approach presents a refreshingly balanced, but also professionally consistent, ethical response to complex value conflicts within the therapeutic relationship.

In situations where a client’s presenting problem and requested treatment focus lies outside of a counselor’s deeply held personal beliefs, values, and convictions, counselors-in-training would be instructed to skillfully refer the client to another clinician who can offer the treatment and assistance the client desires. While many law proposals have focused primarily on the client’s right to treatment, the “Freedom of Conscience Act” considers both the client’s right to self-determination, as well as the counselor’s right to freedom of conscience.

Speaking to this important issue, AACC President, Dr. Tim Clinton, said, “Every responsible academic and clinician knows that there will always be the potential for value conflicts in counseling, and they are not all related to spirituality. Ethical counselors operate under informed consent, respect for client self-determination, and refer clients in a professional manner when a values conflict takes place in professional counseling and psychotherapy. This approach also makes sense, both professionally and ethically, because research shows that therapeutic alignment in counseling is significant to positive outcomes.”

The value-based referral approach supported by HB 5040 does just that—assuring that all clients can get the help they need from a therapist who offers treatment within the same worldview, while at the same time preserving each counselor’s freedom of personal and religious values.

The bill was introduced in response to Julea Ward’s religious discrimination case that led to her expulsion from the Eastern Michigan University counseling program. During her practicum, Ms. Ward faced this challenge while working with a client who asked her to affirm his gay lifestyle. As a committed Christian, Ms. Ward’s personal religious beliefs were in direct conflict with the client’s desired treatment goal, but she was told that a values-based referral was not an option.

Contrary to the views of some who criticize the bill, the “Freedom of Conscience Act” represents significant progress in responsibly addressing the ethical challenges that often arise in the counseling profession. It has always been the ethical duty of mental health providers to connect clients with another professional who can render quality care when the presenting issue lies outside of their area of expertise or core value system. The Michigan House of Representatives is to be applauded for taking on this ethical challenge, rather than avoiding it.

The bill passed the House 59-50 and will now go before the Senate for review.

7 thoughts on “AACC Statement on Michigan HB 5040

  1. behaviors that conflict with a sincerely held religious belief of the student, ”

    I do not understand why these students want to go to a State School who must follow the accreditation od The accrediting health care organizations. Why don’t they simply go to a Christian college where this isn’t a problem?

    I read that she wanted to be a school counselor. Well how are the gay kids going to feel when they go to her and she sloughs them off on somebody else. Kids are not stupid word gets around. It is simply further stigmatizing the children.

    I don’t buy this “Firmly Held Religious Belief” claim, I really don’t. It is simply an excuse to discriminate. I don’t see why they don’t simply follow the path of going to Christian Colleges and teaching/working in Christian schools. Then they can practice that firmly held Christian belief to their hearts content. When you go to a secular school and get secular accreditation you have to step away from that.

    I don’t mind if people have a “firmly held religious belief” but don’t force it on the rest of us. Don’t step into our secular world and refuse to serve all commers.

    I am not surprised this came out of Michigan, I don’t know which is worse lately Michigan or Wisconsin. Illinois with its 3 former governors in the Federal Penitentiary is actually starting to look pretty good by comparison.

    • “I don’t mind if people have a “firmly held religious belief” but don’t force it on the rest of us.” Can you not see the irony in your own statement? To force a person to violate their own conscience would be exactly what you accuse religious people of doing.

  2. I find this legislation extremely refreshing. In my coursework (at two secular institutions) I recall discussions about these kind of value-based conflicts. Everyone has biases. That is a fact that will not change. We can reduce our biases, but there will always be some. This legislation has implications far beyond working with gay-identified clients alone. One scenario we discussed in an ethics class was whether it was appropriate for a white therapist who was married to a black man to attempt to offer therapy to a skinhead or klan member (whom she detested for that association). In such a case it would be extremely difficult for this therapist to offer the kind of unbiased counseling the skinhead needed without letting her emotions get involved. Someone who could handle the situation in a more level-headed manner may be necessary to refer to. Responsible counselors/psychologists will recognize their own biases and do all they can to not allow those biases to interfere with their client’s right to receive the best care possible. Counselors should be encouraged to refer when they find themselves faced with a conflict like this. Not punished for trying to do what is best for their clients.

  3. Thanks for chiming in, Stuart, and welcome to the site.

    I have mixed feelings about ‘conscience clauses’, primarily because of venue, much as I wrote about in a previous poston the CA legislation to make reorientation therapy illegal for minors.

    My preference is to see mental health professions regulate their own practice. I think most reasonable mental health professionals understand that value conflicts are inevitable in clinical service delivery. The vast majority of the time we manage those conflicts (they are minor, as when a democrat works with a republican and vice versa) and we proceed with services. The question comes up with when those differences rise to a level that can affect clinical services, as is the case in your example, perhaps. Then I think reasonable people understand that a referral may be warranted.

    Conscience clauses, in my view, are typically so broad and encompassing that I have concerns about how they will be applied given the nuances and complexities of the issues. They are being considered because of developments in the field (or perceptions about developments in the field), legal cases that are pending, and other concerns. I would much rather it not come to this, however.

    I also think it would also be unfortunate if the reliance on conscience clauses kept training programs from working through in a more in-depth manner the complex issues and from mentoring students in how to navigate clinical decision-making, value conflicts, and the best course of action when providing services.

    Anyway, thanks again for you thoughts and for sharing a little from your training experience.

  4. The part of the Julia Ward story that bothers me the most and puts the “I don’t want to because of my firmly held religious beliefs” under the glare of the bright lights is because of her intention to become a school counselor. She is not intending to go into private practice. I do not believe she is, or ever would be qualified, to be a public school counselor if she is unable to put those beliefs aside and treat all the students gay and straight alike. So I think he school IS right to not graduate her. Why should they give her a diploma which is the piece of paper she needs to go into our public schools and not be a good enough counselor to be able to do a professional job for the students.

    Another thing, although that Regnerus research makes very flawed conclusions and has a lot of problems, one thing that nobody seems to have picked up on is that only 80.1% of the random sample of people declared themselves 100% heterosexual. So right there Ms. Ward is potentially, actually probably, unable to serve 20% of her population of Public School Students.

    This is a crude analogy but the first thing that came to my mind was a “Get Out of Jail Free” card in Monopoly. The first time a person who is having sexual identity problems, maybe horrible parents, the first time that kid walks into her office she reaches in her middle desk draw and pull out that Get Out of Jail Free card and waves it around and says “I do not have to treat this student, “It is against my firmly held religious beliefs.”

    If that is your belief system then go to Christian Colleges, get the Christian Counselors Accreditation, and counsel students in Christian schools, where we all know none of those good Christian heterosexual parents turn out any gay kids at all. Right?

  5. This bill assumes schools are teaching their counseling candidates to accept a clients SELF DIAGNOSIS of whatever is causing the latter’s issue/conflict, i.e., “I don’t like girls, I must be gay.”. SKILLED clinicians take the client’s initial presentation into account, but recognize that other factors may be driving him/her to their conclusion. The self proclaimed “gay” client may not be gay at all. Conversely, a bully sent for treatment because of aggressive behavior may come to recognize that his/her behavior is due to conflicted sexuality. What happens then? HB 5040 allows for students to make judgement calls, in lieu of providing care.

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