Faith in Public

Recently, a Christian was dismissed from Easter Michigan State University because she requested to not counsel a gay client. What does this case say about the presumed relevance of religion and how should the public respond?

Recent articles about the student in the counseling program at Eastern Michigan University who was expelled because she requested that a gay client be deferred to another counselor introduces a complicated issue. This issue could have far reaching ramifications that affect not only professional licensure standards (beyond counseling), but also our continuing interpretation of church-state relations and public philosophy.

On the surface of this case, one can easily side with either party. It may seem reasonable that counseling licensure standards should grant the counselor the freedom to defer a client whose lifestyle can neither be condoned because of religious reasons, nor opposed because of licensure standards. This opt out may even prove to be in the best interest of the client who might prefer not to be seen by a counselor opposed to his/her lifestyle.

On the other hand, the licensure standards offered by the public university aim for the higher moral ground by claiming that the best counselors will be able to set their personal belief systems aside and come to the aid of whoever is in need. Prevalent standards hold that counselors must be nonjudgmental and largely nondirective in their counsel. Counselors should support their clients, assist them to explore their situation, and then allow them to come to their own conclusions. One could easily defend these licensure standards that appear to be more mature, compassionate, and accepting of diversity.

However, merely asking which party is right overlooks a core philosophic issue that has broad ramifications. The issue is, “Are the religious beliefs and values of a counselor (what ever they are) relevant to the counseling situation?” Current licensure standards maintain that they are not; the college student and millions of likeminded Christians claim that they are. Who is right? Who should decide – the state, the licensure board, they counselor, the client? These questions are not new.

Before the twentieth century, religion was considered centrally relevant to all of life – public, private, and professional. However, the scientific revolution brought in a philosophy of public and professional life thought to be more stable and neutral than religion. It held that religion was merely a “private” matter. Called secular humanism, it held that all people were basically good and reasonable. It largely displaced the belief that religion was foundational for human goodness and reason, and it became the philosophic foundation for professional and public life. However, the presumptions of secular humanism have been found lacking. Researchers are increasingly finding that individuals and societies are shaped not merely by their good reason, but by the presumptions of their beliefs systems. In other words, “religion” is more relevant to professional and public life than many presumed!

Thus, American society has new questions to deal with. What aspects of public and professional life is religion relevant to, and how do we incorporate these answers within our public and professional structures? If, for example, religion is relevant to the counseling profession, then what other professions, and how might their professional licensure standards reflect differing religious perspectives? And if religion is relevant to some professional standards and practices, must not colleges teach and explore these fields from within particular religious perspectives? Does this challenge the place of secular higher education as the primary benefactor of public financing?

In the public realm, I support secular government, but how should we restructure governmental activities that have much to draw from religious underpinnings? For example: Is a secular philosophy of education the best foundation for “public education” when there is good reason to argue that the educational nurture of children and young people is a religiously laden activity? Perhaps even our penal system has deep religious overtones that should be addressed. A Christian ministry called Prison Fellowship ran a religiously based program in an Iowa prison that was more successful at reducing recidivism than the prison’s secular programs. However, public funding was denied to the program when it was challenged on church-state grounds.

Perhaps praying with a client and helping them see God’s goodness is relevant to a counselor’s office and should be given broader professional “legitimacy.” It is long overdue that we re-evaluate the place and value of religion outside the “private sphere.” The twentieth century can be viewed as an experiment to help find the relevance of religion to American society. Perhaps we found that it was best to “separate” religion from some aspects of public and private life, but perhaps we also went too far. The boundaries will likely never be settled, but it is left to our generation to conscientiously discern and modify todays professional and public structures that can be strengthened by recognizing not just the “reasonable” but the “religious” nature of human beings and the institutions of society.
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