New Tennessee Bill Would Allow Christian Grad Student Counselors to Refuse LGBT Clients

You remember Julea Ward.

Julea Ward

Ward was a graduate student in counseling at Eastern Michigan University. Because she was a Christian, she refused to treat a suicidal gay student because her faith prevented her from “helping him feel better about himself.”

After she refused to undergo LGBT “sensitivity training,” EMU kicked her out of their grad program. In 2010, a judge supported the school’s decision. Ward and her lawyers appealed it. Instead of continuing a drawn-out legal battle, EMU opted to settle the case and pay Ward $75,000 to basically go away.

The Michigan House of Representatives also passed a bill in her honor so that no school could punish a student “who refuse[d] to counsel a client because of a ‘sincerely held religious belief.’” (The Senate never acted on it.)

Now, Tennessee legislators are working with Ward’s lawyers and conservative activist David Fowler (president of the Family Action Council of Tennessee) in order to pass a similar bill. Because why wouldn’t someone want to reward such admirable bigotry…?

Senate Bill 514 (PDF) is sponsored by State Senator Joey Hensley (while House Bill 1185 is sponsored by State Rep. John J. DeBerry, Jr.) and would allow religion to be used as an excuse for not treating a client:

State Sen. Joey Hensley

A public institution of higher education operating under chapter 8 or 9 of this title 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.

It’s similar to what Christian pharmacists want with their “conscience clauses” — they want to get out of doing their jobs if they disagree with you on a moral level. Just as those pharmacists want the right to not give you birth control pills that your doctor prescribed, this bill would let social workers-in-training refuse gay clients because they oppose gay rights for religious reasons, in essence, giving Christians a green light to be bigots outside of church without fear of punishment.

Jake Morris, director of the graduate program in counseling at Lipscomb University, said students need to be able to treat a wide range of clients, not just those who share their religious values.

“I want my students to be able to help anyone who walks in their door,” he said. For example, if a student thinks divorce is sinful, that student still needs to know how to treat clients who have gone through a divorce.”

Students, Morris said, should be exposed to a wide range of clients while in training. That will help them become competent professionals.

“We are health care professionals,” he said. “We need to act like it.”

That’s really the issue here. This bill would allow religious students to graduate even if they’re unable to do the work required in such professions. It’s not about religious liberty — no one is forcing the counselors to “accept” homosexuality; they just have to help their clients.

What’s next for Tennessee?

Will Christian students who want to become science teachers be able to get out of teaching evolution because it conflicts with their sincerely held religious beliefs?

What about Christians who want to become health educators but refuse to teach students about condoms?

Would Christian doctors be able to refuse patients who are having pre-marital sex?

Where does the line get drawn between doing your job and using your religion as an excuse to get out of it?

Student who can’t perform the basic duties of the profession they want to go into should do us all a favor and find a new line of work. I don’t expect vegetarians (like myself) to apply for a job at McDonald’s if they refuse to serve meat products to customer. And Christian grad students shouldn’t get a pass on treating patients just because they have hangups about how those patients live their lives.

If you want to judge other people, become a pastor. If you want to become a counselor, then do your job and learn how to counsel people.

Incidentally, the University of Tennessee is strongly opposed to this legislation:

Faculty members of counseling, psychology, and social work programs from institutions across the state bill gave strong testimony against the bill. It was clear that this legislation will cause numerous problems in implementation and in practice

The impact of this bill will likely place accreditation at risk for TN counseling programs.

The existing professional code works. Current law works. In the classroom, students enjoy great religious and free speech liberty. As practitioners-in-training, students are given the best and broadest education possible in preparation for the workforce.

(Thanks to Christina for the link)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Bridget Gaudette
  • SecularPatriot

    Special rights for a special people.

  • Claude

    $75,000! Bigotry pays.

  • Yosemite Sam

    Always the south. Welcome to the Mason-Dixon line, please set your watches back 40 years.

  • icecreamassassin
  • Gregory A. Clark

    It gets worse.

    The University of Utah (where I am an associate professor) was sued by Christina Axon-Flynn, who refused to complete an assignment on the grounds that it violated her sincerely held religious beliefs.

    To its shame, the University of Utah not only paid her off to settle the case, it also led the nation in passing its “accommodation policy.” The policy allows faculty and students to delete required, legitimate course material from the curriculum simply and expressly because it conflicts with students’ sincerely-held religious beliefs. Further, it explicitly prohibits faculty from considering the validity of those beliefs, even for science courses. Because, you know, facts aren’t particularly relevant for determining course content in science classes. At least when compared with sincerely-held religious or personal beliefs.

    Some of us fought against passage of this policy, but ultimately lost. We did win some important concessions along the way. At least it’s not mandatory.

  • Cyndi Kramer

    I wonder if she even sees the irony of her position as a black woman not that far removed from the segregation days.

  • Emily Dietle

    This makes me sick.

  • Michael Greiff

    I Like your McDonald’s comparison. Perfect way to bring it down to reality.

  • eric

    The impact of this bill will likely place accreditation at risk for TN counseling programs

    Therein lies the crux. I’m sure there are already unaccredited Christian schools teaching social sciences, but students like Ms. Ward don’t want to go to them. They want the credibility that goes along with well-recognized programs combined with the freedom to discriminate. But you can’t have both, because not even a law is going to get the profession to recognize discrimination as good medicine. You get one or the other; the credibility is part and parcel with how the program treats patients, and if you force a progam into unequal treatment of patients, then its going to quickly lose its credibility.
    I guess the legislature has decided on a cut-off-your-nose strategy. If private university christian social service programs in TN can’t get accreditation, they’re going to make sure every other program has to adopt the same bad practices so that no other program gets it either.

  • raytheist

    The work of a counselor is to (1) determine the client’s values and then (2) assess whatever problem is occurring, and reconcile the problem within the context of the client’s values. The counselor’s values have, or should have, NO bearing on serving the client. Allowing the counselor to frame the client’s problems in the context of the counselor’s values is ethically inappropriate.

  • Rain

    Some religious beliefs are more sincerely held than the turning the other cheek and the love thy neighbor religious beliefs. Especially when there is money and revenge involved.

  • C Peterson

    They say “sincerely held religious beliefs” but they mean “Christian beliefs”. I imagine there’d be quite the outcry if a Muslim or atheist counselor refused to help a Christian in need, because they disagreed with their religious views.

    If this law passes, the first time that somebody commits suicide after being handed off to another counselor, the lawyers are going to have a field day. This law isn’t going to do a thing to protect a Tennessee counselor who finds herself up against Federal civil rights prosecution- criminal or civil.

  • Diana Cunningham

    “…if the student refers the client to a counselor who will provide the counseling or services.” –Was that not a part of EMU’s policy, or was it just ignored in this case?

  • Gregory A. Clark

    And, why all the fuss? After all, refusing treatment is the Christian thing to do.

    Not always, but all too often, the imaginary Jesus Himself was a bigoted, hateful, sadistic bastard.

    Christ refused to treat the daughter of a Canaanite women, thinking she was an unbeliever. “I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel. . . . It is not right to take the children’s bread, and cast it to dogs.” Matthew 15: 24-26.

    And the New Testament is chock-full of anti-gay hate speech. Romans 1: 24-32, anyone? You know, which castigates gays and lesbians being evil, malicious, murders and liars, “worthy of death.” Or how about 1 Corinthians 6:9?

    But, hey. Whaddya expect from the deity that invented eternal torture for thought crimes?

  • John C. Welch

    no, no, you don’t fight idiocy like this. You let it pass, and then commence to messing with people under full legal sanction. The first time non-christians start turning away christians, or asking them why they are leading sinful lifestyles that will condemn them to an eternity of torment in hell, this moron will leave trails of FIRE to repeal that law.

    You want to get states that still allow discrimination based on sexual orientation to change? Have the local LGBT folks get together and start buying things. Businesses. Apartments. That kind of thing. Then start showing the straights how that whole “hey, it’s a private business schtick maybe is not a great excuse to discriminate, since, after all, heterosexuality is “just a choice”, right?

  • Sven2547

    “What to say to those who claim that religion requires them to discriminate? I’ll tell you what I’d say: Get thee to a nunnery. And live there then. Go live a monastic life, away from modern society, away from the people you can’t see as equals to yourself.”
    –Pat Steadman, Colorado State Senator

  • Barefoot Bree

    If you want to help people professionally, you can’t just help only people that you like. That’s not helping. That’s social masturbation.

  • Max Bingman

    So at the end of the day she gets $75,000 for being too ass-backwards to do her job.

  • Kevin_Of_Bangor


  • Milly Franco

    I understand the problem with this, it’s an extremely sensitive issue. however, should we force someone to do something against their beliefs just because it is their job? Aren’t there other people who do that same job that could just as easily help the individual? For those of you who say “it goes with the territory, if you don’t like it find another job”, while you do have a point, what if the worker did a great job otherwise? Should everyone else who would benefit from this person’s knowledge miss out? we have to allow people freedom to make choices they can live with. Isn’t that what people of “alternative” lifestyles have been fighting for for years?

  • blasphemous_kansan

    >>”Aren’t there other people who do that same job that could just as easily help the individual?”

    Perhaps, but perhaps not. Perhaps the person lives in a very isolated community, and there is little to no assistance for those who share a minority viewpoint. Or maybe the person lives in a large city and help is readily available. Either way, it’s a hypothetical situation with no bearing on reality. Why not take the more cautious and business-savvy approach, and guarantee that you will be able to service as broad of a clientele as possible?

    >>”while you do have a point, what if the worker did a great job otherwise?”

    I’ve been at my job for multiple years, and doing what I and others think is a ‘great job’. That being said, if I tried to steal my computer tomorrow, I’d be fired. As I would deserve.

    >>”Should everyone else who would benefit from this person’s knowledge miss out?”

    Yes. Someone who will not discriminate will replace them. No big loss.

    >>”we have to allow people freedom to make choices they can live with.”


    >>”Isn’t that what people of “alternative” lifestyles have been fighting for for years?”

    No. Equality is and always has been the end goal. Common mistake.

  • C Peterson

    Yes, in certain professions, we should expect people to do things that might be contrary to their beliefs. These professions involve accreditation and licensure because they directly impact the health or safety of others. Along with the privileges of that accreditation comes certain responsibilities. Society depends upon constructs like this.

  • RowanVT

    No, it’s not a sensitive issue. If you can’t do the job, you don’t get to do the job and should not try to do the job. I’m a registered veterinary technician. I have performed plenty of euthanasias in my 12 years in this field. I would be paid significantly better if I worked at the local shelter, but if I was there I would be required to euthanise perfectly healthy animals because of space. I ethically cannot do that. I am fine with, and in fact in some ways ‘happy’ to perform euthanasia for severely sick/injured animals. But I can’t do it to a perfectly healthy critter. That’s how I ended up taking in and adopting out 20+ animals in the last 12 years.

    So I don’t work at the shelter, because I can’t do that job. Simple. That worker can’t do a ‘great job’ if she views other people as significantly of less worth than herself. She wanted to be a counselor for goodness sake. Someone who helps people who drastically need it, but she wouldn’t help!

  • dearestlouise

    As someone who is working towards a BSW and lives in a rural area in the Bible Belt I can easily see severe problems being caused by this.

    Imagine working for an agency and being the only non-religious person which is likely. If all of the religious people don’t want to take on LGBTQ clients then that leaves only one person to deal with all of them. What happens when there’s 10, 20, 30, 40+ cases and there’s only one person qualified and willing to deal with them? What happens if there’s no one willing or qualified?

    There’s not one area of social work where you will not encounter LGBTQ individuals. Also, although this legislation is targeted at LGBTQ individuals what happens when a social worker decides they don’t want to work with a woman who has had an abortion? a teenager who had sex out of wedlock? a teen mom? a divorced man? a sex worker?

    Are we just going to let them pick and choose their clients while their co-workers are expected to pickup the slack and client care suffers?

  • Baby_Raptor

    They aren’t going to stop this shit until we knock it into their thick skulls that this can be used against them too. Once we get some Muslims or Atheists or non-asshole Christians refusing to serve these bigots under this kind of law, maybe then the jerks will wake up.

    Meanwhile, the rest of the country suffers still more harm because of the Party of Make Everyone Else Take Responsibility.

  • Baby_Raptor

    If you willingly chose a job, shut the Fuck up and do it. That’s what it comes down to. It doesn’t matter how good this person might be to white, cis, straight people…If they won’t help *everyone,* then they need to leave. Other people should not have to suffer because X person thinks they’re special. And the very people making this argument wouldn’t support someone refusing to serve them. We all know that.

    Also, this “there are always other people who can do it” talking point has been brought out and shot down a million times. Please do some basic research before using it again. There are often NOT other people who can do the job, be it due to limitations on staffing, a small town situation, who will take the person’s insurance, ETC.

    Lastly, Fuck you. This is nothing, NOTHING comparable to gay people fighting for basic civil rights. My sexuality isn’t a choice. And having a specific job isn’t a civil right. Nor is being of a specific religion, or being allowed to discriminate.

  • Miss_Beara

    There’s that “sincerely held religious beliefs” BS again. “I am going to deny you help because that is what Jesus would want me to do.”

  • Librepensadora

    Where did we get the idea that “sincerely held religious beliefs” could give us a free pass to discriminate? One source has to be the Catholic Church, which has uniformly forbidden abortions and birth control in its hospitals?

  • Pawel Samson

    I love your pseudo-tolerant attitude that you seem to be so proud of. For your information, it’s not an “alternative lifestyle” – it’s just a life just like any other, no better or worse. These people need to find other work if they can’t keep their deranged religious views from affecting their ability to do their jobs.

  • Carmelita Spats

    It is not an “extremely sensitive issue”. It is an issue of raw bigotry.
    She should have her professional credentials stamped with a detailed
    list of ALL the superstitious impediments spinning around in her wee
    brain and ALL her clients should be notified of this list. I’m sure
    there’s way,way,way more superstitious nonsense to add to her daisy
    chain of faith-based prejudices other than “I-find-gay-people-to
    -be-icky-they-make-Baby-Jesus-cry.” Everyone would be aware of ALL the situations, people, ethical considerations, that go against her beliefs and prevent her from fulfilling PROFESSIONAL, ADULT, obligations. Isn’t that what people of “religious bigotry” have been fighting for for years? Religion=superstition.

  • Claude

    Christ refused to treat the daughter of a Canaanite women, thinking she was an unbeliever.

    Jesus balked because the woman was a Gentile from a hated enemy of the Jews, not because she was an unbeliever. Interestingly, Jesus caves and cures the woman’s daughter (by remote control) because he admires the woman’s nimble response to his insult.

  • eric

    If she was already licensed, accredited, and in private practice, she would be perfectly free to pick her patients. That’s not what this is about. This is about the school deciding that prospective counselors need to have training in counseling a wide variety of patients to earn their degree. Evidently the professional societies agree that this is a valid criteria, since the school could lose its accreditation if they obey this new law. She wants to get the accredited degree without fulfilling the course requirements, which undermines the reputation and breadth of the degree program for everyone in it, not just her.
    Now, here’s an interesting thought. AIUI all students in such programs must also undergo counseling, because they are required to understand ‘the other side’ first hand. So what happens when the more senior students say that it is against their beliefs to counsel a student who is a religious bigot? One wonders what the legislature will do when someone refuses to counsel the Ms. Wards of the student world, which could jeopardize her ability to get the degree in the first place.

  • PietPuk

    So if I sincerely believe that religious people should pray for help rather than getting medical attention in case of a heart attack, I get $75,000? Cool!

  • Park James

    Okay, how perfect is it that in the background of that picture it says “education first”? Education is clearly taking a back seat to her awful religious dogma.

  • Marco Conti

    Here we go again with the “sincerely held belief”. Who is going to judge the sincerity of those beliefs?

    If I refuse to treat someone because my Pastafarian beliefs prevent me from treating someone that doesn’t like pirates, is that sincerely held or not?

  • Marco Conti

    I totally sympathize with your choice here. I know this is not the right thread, but isn’t there a better way than euthanize healthy animals for lack of space? I’d love to hear about your experience and possible proposals. Not here, but maybe you can point me to a place where this topic is dealt with.

  • Randomfactor

    And if an atheist counselor sincerely thought a Christian was wasting his life being religious, he’d be allowed to turn away someone in trouble.

    Except that he’d do no such thing.

  • RowanVT

    There’s probably plenty of places, though the best answer is spaying and neutering more pets, teaching people to be responsible and not breed just because ‘fluffy is so wonderful’ and better access to information on socialising so the dogs don’t turn aggressive.

    In a way that can translate to people. Don’t have more children than you want/can afford and here are resources to help with that and please teach your kids to not be assholes.

  • eonL5

    …a Christian counselor who refuses to treat anybody who doesn’t believe in their version of God, e.g. an atheist… I agree, that disqualifies them for the position, just as I believe a pharmacy worker must dispense all legal pharmaceuticals, regardless of whether they agree with the treatment. Lets see a pharmacy worker refuse Viagara to a man whose wife is past menopause.

  • Ben Cemoli

    Simply have each prospective candidate for the counseling, social service, or psychology program sign a document stating that the prospective candidate will be expected to abide by all the standards, practices and ethics of their chosen profession and that if they feel that they cannot do so then they should be simply counseled that perhaps the career they have chosen isn’t the right one for them.

    The law doesn’t say anything about the people applying for positions in a counseling, social service or psychology program. It just states that you cannot punish the student if ” 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.” it says nothing about the individuals apply for spots in any given program.

    In other words, simply weed the wackos out early in the process and admit only those who are not so over burdened by their “sincerely held religious beliefs” that they would be unable to uphold the standards, practices and ethics of their chosen profession.

    End of fucking problem. . . until the next legislative session.

    (And as an aside, Hemant, why can I no longer seem to find the login button to get the login popup so we can chose what service to login under. All I see is the Disqus sign in form/ registration link. Did you discontinue all other logins?)

  • Benny Cemoli

    Poking around the Tennessee Legislature’s website I came across this gem of a bill HB1150/SB1241.

    I had to read the summary of the bill a couple of times and then just read the bill, it’s only one page long, to figure out what the hell these two legislators were up to,

    When I figured it out all I could say is WTF?!??!?? >:-(
    I weep for the future of the United States.

  • TheBlackCat13

    Wait, what? Are you kidding me? That is even crazier than the school bus thing. “Yeah, let’s put the students in the school in danger, that will show the admins”.

  • Benny Cemoli

    And it seems as if Vanderbilt University is none to happy about the prospect either.

  • Richard Wade

    The only good thing I can see coming from this squalid bigotry fest is that “Christian counselors” will continually make themselves irrelevant and of no use to people who need help with real world problems. They’ll be working in an ever-shrinking market. We can only hope that they don’t do too much damage to vulnerable people who still buy into the Christian mindset that “bad” thoughts are just as bad as bad actions, and that conformity to a very narrow range of behaviors is desirable.

  • Wayne H. Franklin

    “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” One simple rule and they f*ck it up.

  • Rain

    You should see her video interview. She has a (totally-not-gay) relationship with Jesus. And she is way holier than thou are.

  • Stev84

    She wanted to become a school counselor. In many cases she would be the only person students could talk to in confidence. Students can’t just shop around for counselors. They’re stuck with what’s available.

  • Shannon Kish

    Let her refuse. And when she goes before the licensing board in her state, she will sign their code of ethics and be in violation of them if she does so in practice.

  • Bubba Tarandfeathered

    but just imagine the massive, in the national news, stink the christians will make if one did.

  • Bubba Tarandfeathered

    Probably her motive all along.

  • Bubba Tarandfeathered


  • Cathy McGrath

    Does it matter? If I’ve established a relationship with my counselor, and over the course of the term manage to admit to myself and by extension my counselor, that I’m gay, and at this most tremulous time in my life, they dump me off on somebody else because they don’t think their pastor wants them to help me anymore, do you think I’m going to say sorry to bother them and frolic off to the next counselor to start all over again? Or worse yet, they don’t dump me off to someone directly, but back into the system to wait for the next available counselor?
    Sorry for the wall of text, it crept up on me.

  • Cathy McGrath

    I’m not going to copy/paste my wall of text, but please read my response regarding getting dumped off on someone else.

  • Cathy McGrath

    To a senator with a hot secretary/intern maybe?

  • Cathy McGrath

    Or, if someone to refuse to counsel Ms. Ward because they’re old-school Mormon and believe she is an unclean demon because she is of dark skin? Any bets she’d throw a lawsuit-fit?

  • Cathy McGrath

    I noticed that familiar phrase too.

  • Cathy McGrath

    Only if you remember to wear your Colander! Just don’t drive with it on.

  • Cathy McGrath

    to the aside, I’m signed in using twitter. Unfortunately I forgot how I found it.

  • rustygh

    What a low-life bitch. Here is a time a god to be held accountable to would be nice. Personally I hope she meets a swift moving bus head on.

  • geru

    As I’ve said before, if a person has such immense personal issues with sexual minorities that they can’t stand working with them, maybe they shouldn’t be working as a counselor in the first place? I wouldn’t hire one if it was up to me, that’s for sure.

  • geru

    Oh, and as a side note,

    …she refused to treat a suicidal gay student because her faith prevented her from “helping him feel better about himself.”

    …f**k this person, and f**k her faith. This not only makes her a lousy counselor, but also a despicable human being.

  • Michael

    The photographer had a sly sense of humor; posing the woman so that she appears to be looking down on all the little people.

  • Claude


    True story!

  • Raina J

    Doesn’t this pretty much go against what counselors are suppose to do?

  • Gregory A. Clark

    “Then Jesus answered and said unto her, O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt. And her daughter was made whole from that very hour.”

    Because, you know, the ones that *don’t* have great faith in him?

    Fuck ‘em. Bunch of dogs. As Jesus himself put it.

    What an asshole.