Is it OK to Be a Counselor and Homophobic?

When personal and professional justification systems collide

Posted Feb 04, 2012

What do we do when personal and professional justification systems collide? If you are a counselor or a professional psychologist, to what extent do your personal beliefs and values need to align with those of the profession? A recent case involving a counselor in training is has brought this question to a head. Ms. Julea Ward was a counselor in training at Eastern Michigan University. She is also an Evangelical Christian who interprets the Bible as meaning that homosexuality is a sin. As such, she decided that she could not work with homosexual clients and thus would be inclined as a professional to refer them out. Her university decided that homosexuality is a basic dimension of diversity and subsequently removed her from the program. She sued based on religious discrimination. Although a federal court initially found in favor of the university, on January 27th, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ordered the lower court to rehear the case, finding that Eastern Michigan "cannot point to any written policy that barred Ward from requesting this referral."

This is a fascinating case because it forces the issue of what to do when personal and professional justification systems clash. As a training director of a program that emphasizes a broad, theoretically and philosophically integrative view of psychology, this is an issue we have encountered on more than one occasion. In my experience, the conflict almost always stems, as in the case above, from deeply held religious convictions.  

Although our society often acts as if religious beliefs are completely separate from endeavors like professional psychology, educators who emphasize deep self-reflective awareness, the role of values in psychotherapy, and the importance of reconciling one's personhood with one's role as a professional psychologist know very well that the conflict can be deep and profound. I suspect that the conflict may even be more profound in psychology than in counseling because many in psychology (myself included) believe that being a psychologist (researcher or practitioner) commits one to a scientific worldview, broadly defined. And while it certainly is possible to be deeply religious and deeply scientific, it also is the case that it is complicated, and students often learn that what is scientifically known (e.g., evolution by natural selection) conflicts with their understanding of the sacred. Moreover, there are also sometimes value clashes between religious teaching and humanism, with homosexuality being a domain of not infrequent dispute.

It will be interesting to see how the court rules. My bottom line is that sexual orientation is a diversity issue. Whatever one's personal religious justifications, the effective handling of human diversity is a basic competency of mental health professionals.