Michigan “Conscience Act” Would Allow Student Counselors to Reject Gay Clients

Michigan’s GOP-controlled House passed a bill on Friday, June 15, so that student counselors don’t have to give counseling to gay people, women who have had abortions or anyone else rendered morally unpalatable by their religious beliefs.

HB 5040, or the Julea Ward Freedom of Conscience Act, reads:

A bill to protect the right of a student to assert conscientious objection to providing certain counseling or other services; to prohibit certain actions by institutions of higher education; and to provide remedies.

It goes on to say:

[A higher learning institution] 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.

The bill is named after student counselor Julea Ward, who was dismissed from a counseling program at Eastern Michigan University in 2009 after she refused to counsel a gay student, claiming that her religious beliefs meant she couldn’t affirm “immoral persons” to be healthy as the program—and general scientific medical understanding—said she should.

Ward, with the backing of the ever-ready religiously conservative Alliance Defense Fund, sued, charging that the school violated the Constitution by censoring her freedom of religious speech.

She lost the first round in federal court, but later won a ruling with the U.S. Sixth District Court of Appeals, the court saying there was a reasonable chance a jury might have decided the university used its code of ethics as pretext for censoring or punishing Ward’s religious freedom of speech. The Court ordered a retrial in lower court, this time before a jury.

Eastern Michigan University maintains that Ward’s dismissal was in fact not  about religion or homosexuality, but a university’s right to insist that its  trainees complete academic assignments to the standards expected of professional  counselors, something Ward failed to do.

LGBT rights groups suggest that not only is this bill motivated by bias, it could have wider repercussions for all of Michigan’s mental health professionals, with Equality Michigan saying:

House Bill 5040 threatens clients seeking counseling with rejection based on their race, relationship status and faith or, yes, because of their sexual orientation. The “First Do Harm” bill also threatens the accreditation of Michigan universities’ counseling programs, disabling Michigan graduates in their search to find employment, and guarantees that Michigan will not be a top choice for the nation’s best and brightest prospective counseling students.

However, Ward’s representatives from the Alliance Defense Fund are pleased with the legislature’s attempts to enshrine this religious right to discriminate, with Jeremy Tedesco of the ADF saying, “We’re encouraged that the elected representatives of  Michigan have taken a concern in this case and decided to act.”

The legislation, which passed 59-50 in the House, now moves to the Michigan Senate.

Reprinted with permission from Care2

Photo from flickr user archeoeric under Creative Commons


  1. That shouldn’t be their profession then. Not saying that they should not be allowed per se…. but they should have some sort of training to deal with the issues in a manner that is objective from both negative and positive thoughts. More-so dealing with how the child feels about the situation and just being someone to talk to without being judgmental. If they can’t do that I don’t think they meet the requirements to be a “counselor” and they should come up with a different name for it or something.

  2. Freedom of religion does NOT include “freedom to discriminate” nor is the provision of counseling an “affirmation of health.” This bigot’s behavior went against the university’s policy of non-discrimination-a policy which it is legally bound to uphold. If she could not counsel certain individuals because she objected to
    their existence on moral grounds she had a right to RESIGN. Since she opted not to do so she was properly fired.

    The bigger picture here, of course, is how far our legal system will go to protect those who engage in institutionalized bigotry and legalized discrimination. Will we have emergency room physicians refusing “on moral grounds” to treat patients because they are gay, or allowing women to die from complications of abortion because it’s “God’s will?” The potential ramifications of this one decision are enormous and enormously terrifying. I hope it is appealed all the way to the Supreme Court.

  3. HumanServicesStudentWeighsIn says:

    Turning down a CONSUMER because they have different views and values than you is not part of the job description of any qualified and educated counselor. In fact, it’s opposite! This won’t last long, surely the school will be reprimanded by the American Counseling Association.

    • Why would the University be reprimanded by the ACA?

      The University followed ACA ethical guidelines and the ACA also expressed their support of EMU.


    YOU SHOULD NOT GO INTO THE FIELD OF PSYCHOLOGY IF YOU ARE NOT A DIVERSE AND OPEN INDIVIDUAL. I chose this career path because I want to make a difference and help ANYONE no matter their diagnosis. You are undermining your true purpose if you agree with this law. You should NOT be in this field if you agree with this. ABSOLUTELY RIDICULOUS.

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