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.