Is freedom of religion equal to freedom to discriminate?

According to a federal appeals court, a graduate counseling student, Julea Ward may have been discriminated against because of her faith when she was expelled from Eastern Michigan University after refusing to counsel a gay student. Instead of doing what she was tasked to do, she insisted the student be referred to a different counselor.

Her case has brought up an interesting question that has come up before: specifically with abortion and contraception. Should doctors be forced to perform abortions? Should pharmacists be forced to supply contraception?

This is a thorny issue because both sides of Ward’s situation have strongly-held, deeply-felt convictions. Ward felt she would be a disservice to the student and wouldn’t be the appropriate sounding board for the student seeking help; the university felt that as its training accredited counselors, students should abide by professional standards – and as of 2012, all of the major bodies of medicine and science dispute the theory that homosexuality is a sickness that should be cured.

But this is all old news – we’ve had the knowledge that gay people aren’t sick for over 30 years. What this case is about is Ward’s ability to assert her personal convictions and keep her professional life at the same time.

And the answer is no, she can’t.

It’s harsh but Ward cannot decide or pick and choose who she treats, based solely on personal prejudices. If an ER doctor encounters a KKK Klansman who was shot, her duty is to save the guy’s life, no matter how abhorrent his views are; if a university hires a professor to teach astronomy, he cannot teach his students that the world is flat, even if he believes it so.

Ward decided to align herself with a public university that is accredited and that churns out mainstream workers. If she was concerned about her beliefs clashing with her profession, she should’ve turned to the many, many private colleges that are only too happy to impart the ancient belief that homosexuals are sick. She should also look to another kind of profession, one that doesn’t rely on being accredited (for example, she can “counsel” as a pastor).

Essentially, Ward decided to be trained and work in a secular environment, but then wanted to maintain her secular world view. Unfortunately, that doesn’t work. Besides, in the work place, or in school, everyone has to struggle and make decisions they don’t like. When in school, I took math classes – even though, I hated math, wasn’t very good and knew that it was a big waste of time and money for me to take the course. I had a choice, of course. I could’ve quit school, I could’ve cheated or I could’ve searched for a school that didn’t teach math, but I didn’t. I chose to go to a state school that had requirements, including a few math classes.

I don’t think Ward’s a bad person. From what I understand, her reticence to treat the student was two-fold – 1) her reluctance to discuss homosexuality with another person in a nonjudgmental way and 2) her  belief that the person’s need would not be met by her assistance. She did the responsible thing by passing this guy along, instead of going ahead and giving him some potentially bad advice.

Still, her instance of good judgement in that situation doesn’t erase the fact that she’s still in the wrong profession. Wanting to work in human services, but not wanting to work with gay people, would be like wanting to be a zoo keeper, but wanting to avoid lions. You simply can’t do it. Ward wasn’t discriminated against because she was a person of faith, she was let go because she wasn’t doing her job. It’s that simple.

But I don’t think firing Ward will necessarily help things along. This situation could’ve been a real learning opportunity for both the university and the student. We are in an increasingly rancorous world, where both sides of an issue or debate feel the need to enforce opinions. While the university ultimately is correct because 1) it creates the rules and 2) it administers the rules, reaching out to religious folks wouldn’t be such a bad thing.

Ward may come out of this experience unhappy and wary of gay people – misdirecting her anger at a population that she could blame for her problems. More should be done to work with people like Ward so that they understand that in a diverse society, we can work with a lot of different kinds of people without necessarily agreeing with them. Unfortunately, it is appears that Ward doesn’t understand that. And she should be taught that.



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2 responses to “Is freedom of religion equal to freedom to discriminate?

  1. Cole

    Really, it’s better that she just stay away from us. Full stop. I can’t imagine how awful having a clenched-teeth, I’m-gonna-hold-my-nose-and-deal-with-this-Sodomite-despite-my-beliefs therapist would be.

    • I see your point, but a well-trained professional shouldn’t betray her feelings when dealing with patients/clients…I believe that when I worked for the government and had to deal with conservative Christians, for example, who would bring up their religious convictions when I tried helping them (often religious issues would impede my work), it’s up to me to make sure that while helping them, they cannot judge whether or not I “agree” with their beliefs.

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