July 2010 Update: A federal judge has ruled in EMU’s favor, upholding Julea Ward’s expulsion.

I posted a few weeks ago about Julea Ward, who was expelled from Eastern Michigan University’s counseling graduate program because she insisted that as a Christian she had a moral obligation to steer gay counseling clients to “cultivate sexual desires for persons of the opposite sex.”

When Ward discussed this issue with her professors, they made it clear to her that if  she offered such a suggestion in a therapeutic relationship, she would violate the code of ethics of the American Counseling Association. And so, when Ward was assigned to a gay client in the course of her counseling training, she suggested that this client be given a referral to another counselor. (It was that request that set disciplinary proceedings in motion.)

Many of Ward’s defenders have, as she did, suggested that referral would have been an appropriate compromise between Ward’s beliefs and the ACA ethical rules. As someone said in a Reddit discussion of the case yesterday,

One could argue that if she is unable/unwilling to acknowledge homosexuality as an acceptable behavior, then she is ethically obligated to refer the patient to another counselor in order to keep from allowing her personal values from intruding her professional work.

In other words, while it would certainly be wrong for her to make judgements to her patient about their sexuality in a counselling session, perhaps it’s a valid compromise to find her patient a more qualified counselor.

I’ve come across this argument a lot recently, often in online discussions in which Ward’s critics cite my previous article on the subject, and so I’d like to respond to it directly.

One problem with this approach is that it doesn’t seem to be one that the ACA recognizes as legitimate. Though the Association does accept referral on a case-by-case basis when a counselor and a client have an unbridgeable conflict in values, I haven’t found anything in ACA rules that supports a counselor making a policy decision that she’ll reject an entire class of clients because of her values.

But there’s a more fundamental problem than that.

The counseling relationship is a relationship of trust, and trust is built up gradually. A client may not come out to his or her counselor in the first session — he or she may not see it as relevant, or may be closeted in his or her daily life. A client may be bisexual, or consider himself straight, at the time that the counseling process begins, and only enter into a same-sex relationship subsequently.

Ward’s offer to refer all gay clients to another therapist doesn’t anticipate any of these scenarios, and it can’t accommodate them.

If a counselor and a client have been building a relationship over the course of months or even years, and then the client comes out to the counselor, and then the counselor breaks off the counseling relationship, that rejection is a betrayal of the client. If the client is in a fragile emotional state, it could be profound betrayal.

That this isn’t obvious to Ward or her defenders says a lot, I think, about how they see (and don’t see) gay people.