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Religion, What Should a Therapist Do?

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

According to an article in The New York Times, Julea Ward, a teacher and an Evangelical Christian, was studying for a master’s degree in counseling at Eastern Michigan University. As part of her training, she was required to treat clients as part of her training. She asked that any client who was in a homosexual relationship be referred to another student counselor. She stated that, as a result of her religious beliefs, homosexual acts are unacceptable and that she would it would be better for her to not treat them. Soon after, a gay client was referred to another counselor. and Ms. Ward was expelled from the university.

The question that is raised by this case is, should a counselor’s or psychotherapist’s religious convictions bar her from the profession?

 
There are other, similar scenarios that raise the same question. For instance, should a religious therapist see someone who wants an abortion,  is thinking about a divorce, is having premarital sex, or is married and having an extra marital affair? 

The American Civil Liberties Union supported the university in firing Ms. Ward because, in their opinion, a counselor who cannot work with a client for any of these reasons, has an unworkable view of counseling and should not be in the profession.

On the other hand, Ms. Ward’s lawyer argued that she was not asking to change her clients’ way of life, just that she not be changed herself.

In another case, a student was dismissed from school because of her stated intent on telling gay clients that homosexuality was wrong.

Discussion:

An essential part of being a therapist or counselor is objectivity. That means that being judgmental and giving advice have no place when working with clients. In point of fact, it is the job of a therapist to help clients make their own choices and develop their own beliefs and values about every aspect of their lives. Whether or not a therapist is Evangelical, Catholic, Muslim or Orthodox Jewish, it should make no difference when it comes to carrying out their professional duties in relation to clients who are in the office to seek help. The very fact that a person is feeling vulnerable when they seek professional help means that they are not to be taken advantage of in any way.

However, in the real world, things are often not as we wish. Despite their best efforts, therapist can and do find themselves making judgments and having opinions about clients that are not helpful. That is why it is expected that these professionals be guided by supervisors and enter psychotherapy, just for the purpose of working out their issues with certain clients in order that they do not allow their personal feelings to affect the progress of their patients.

The problem is that there are those therapists who do not seek guidance from supervisors and attempt to hide their views from clients. There are also those who attempt to influence clients despite the fact that they should not. There are even those, unlike Ms. Ward, who keep secret their views so that they can enter the field without obstacles. Actually, I believe Ms. Ward should be applauded for her honesty. In addition, unlike in the other case, she never said she had any intention of converting anyone.

What kind of therapist do you want? Don’t you want he kind who lets you know their convictions at the outset so that you can make your own decision to stay or not?  It seems to me that, in dismissing Ms. Ward and others like her, we run the risk promoting dishonesty when people in training feel they have to hide their beliefs for fear of being barred from the profession. Therefore, why not promote honesty by accepting Ms. Ward and referring to her only those with whom she feels comfortable? By dismissing her, isn’t true that we are punishing her for being honest?

What do you think?

Your comments and opinions are encouraged.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

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