Member Insights, Opinion

When religion and sexual orientation collide

By Michelle R. Cox May 1, 2013

Rainbowcross_landingImagine a world filled with counselors who all shared the same beliefs, values and attitudes. For those counselors to effectively serve their clients, the clients should also share the same beliefs, values and attitudes as the counselors, right?

Thank God I don’t live in that world. Counselors are as diverse as the clients they serve, meaning the values of the counselor may not always align with the values of the client. Some may think that Christian counselors with conservative beliefs against same-sex orientation should not provide counseling to that population. Others may think that those same counselors should be obligated to affirm same-sex orientation. Then there are some Christian counselors who, because they can’t affirm same-sex orientation, feel they should not provide counseling services to sexual minorities.

Controversy within the profession

There has been controversy within the counseling profession about whether students in counseling-related programs should be able to refer lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) clients to more competent counselors if a conflict exists with those counseling students’ religious beliefs. Jennifer Keeton, a former graduate counseling education student at Augusta State University, claimed she was ordered to undergo remediation and alter her central religious beliefs after she revealed her religious convictions about gender identity. Keeton filed a lawsuit against the university, which was later dismissed.

More recently, the Michigan House of Representatives passed House Bill 5040, or the Julea Ward Freedom of Conscience Act, that protects the right of students to object to providing certain counseling services if they conflict with the students’ religious beliefs or moral convictions. This bill applies to public or private degree or certificate granting colleges, universities, junior colleges and community colleges in the state of Michigan and restricts those institutions from disciplining or discriminating against students with religious and professional conflict. Additionally, an Arizona bill was signed that protects the religious expression of students. It includes a statement that colleges of that state will not discriminate against students in counseling, social work or psychology programs because the students refuse to counsel clients about goals that conflict with the students’ religious beliefs, as long as the students consult with their supervising instructors to avoid harming the clients.

Diversity among counselors

There are differences among counselor educators based on gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation and religion. Christian counselors are also diverse in their religious affiliations, which include Roman Catholic, Episcopal, Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist and scores of others denominations.

According to an article written in the Seminary Ridge Review by Gilson Waldkoenig in 2002, denominations are “compromises between churchly and sectarian forms.”

Denominations develop based on how people interpret biblical teachings to support modern-day issues. Denominations differ in how they view same-sex orientation. Members of conservative denominations tend to interpret the Bible in a strict, nonflexible manner and believe homosexuality is sinful. They believe the Bible word for word, while members of liberal denominations believe the Bible must be applied to modern times. Conservative Christians may not affirm same-sex orientation and may be opposed to same-sex marriage, while more liberal Christians may be more accepting of same-sex orientation.

As students enroll in counseling-related programs, they bring with them their own personal values, beliefs and attitudes. Clients also enter the counseling relationship with their own personal values, beliefs and attitudes. Although a counselor may not agree with a client’s lifestyle, sexual orientation or beliefs, the counselor still has an ethical responsibility to separate those feelings from her or his role as a counselor.

In some cases, however, I believe that it may be more effective if the counselor and client share similar values and beliefs. On many occasions, I have met with clients who unwaveringly lived according to their faith traditions and desired to speak with someone who understood the power of that faith. I comfortably and gladly accepted the opportunities to listen to my clients discuss their dependence on and trust in God and how it was the center of their lives. I was able to relate to those clients because we shared a common value. I wonder how effective an atheist counselor would have been for these clients and whether that counselor would have considered referring those clients to a Christian counselor.

Because there are diverse populations seeking counseling, I believe there should also be diverse populations of counselors available to meet those clients’ needs. Although we have an ethical responsibility to avoid imposing our values on our clients, we also must work within our boundaries of competency to avoid harming our clients.

Counseling implications

No one would expect a counselor who is an atheist to accept the values of a Christian client; therefore, no one should expect a conservative Christian counselor to accept the values of a gay or lesbian client. However, according to the ACA Code of Ethics, all counselors should be aware of their own personal values and be careful not to impose those values on their clients. Although I don’t believe that counselors should be required to compromise their religious beliefs, they should be prepared to work with diverse populations and should seek professional development if they do not feel competent to work with them.

Derald Wing Sue and David Sue provide suggestions for working with sexual minorities in the sixth edition of their book Counseling the Culturally Diverse: Theory and Practice. I think many of their suggestions may be very helpful for counselors who have conservative Christian values opposing same-sex orientation. I have added some of my own thoughts after each suggestion that may help counselors avoid compromising their faith when working with sexual minorities.

  • Examine your own views about heterosexuality (and homosexuality) and assume that you may have family, friends or co-workers who are sexual minorities. Clients should be treated with respect and genuine concern regardless of sexual orientation. Treat clients the way you would want another counselor to treat your own loved ones.
  • Understand that the client’s problem can be a result of discrimination or society’s view of homosexuality. You should examine your feelings regarding social justice toward all people and how you would advocate for individuals in other situations.
  • Recognize that some problems may be completely unrelated to sexual orientation. Before assuming an inability to assist LGBT clients, first determine the problem. You may find that you are more than capable of providing effective counseling services to your LGBT client.
  • Do not attempt to have clients renounce or change their sexual orientation. Your role as a counselor is not to change the orientation of the client but rather to provide strategies for treatment that are appropriate for meeting the client’s goals. Although you may not accept the sexual orientation of the client, you can accept the gay or lesbian client as a human being who deserves your professionalism.
  • Realize that LGBT clients may themselves have strong religious faith but encounter exclusion. You may find comfort in knowing that your LGBT client possesses a strong faith in God. Although you may not interpret the Bible in the same way, you can both rest in the idea that God is in control of the client’s problems.

Counseling clients who are diverse and different from us requires patience, understanding and a genuine concern for the well-being of all people. It is likely that we will encounter a counseling situation in which we work with someone of a different race, ethnicity or sexual orientation. However, if we are to be effective in our practices, we must make an attempt to assist all clients in resolving issues — in spite of our differences and without compromising our faith.

 

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Michelle R. Cox is an associate professor in the school counseling and school psychology programs at Azusa Pacific University, as well as an associate counselor at Victor Valley College. Contact her at mcox@apu.edu or michelle.cox@vvc.edu.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

 

6 Comments

  1. Laurie Cannon

    My class and I are currently reviewing how the profession is addressing various inequalities, white privilege and the effects of social oppression even within the counseling of others..

    Reply
  2. Johanna

    I have been in a bisexual relationship for 7 years. We have struggled to stay together for many reasons. One of those reasons for myself is religion. My partner does not identify with a religion. I on the other hand have strong religion beliefs that come from my childhood . Because of this, i don’t think i have been as upfront or as determined to work out our relationship problems. Im seeking therapy but i want someone who understands religion but also sexual orientation and can also counsel couples with relationships issues. I truly love her and i would love to save our relationship. Can you please help me find a psychologist.
    Thank you very much.

    Reply
  3. Steve

    Thank you for your article and suggestions. My strong Christian faith and belief in the Bible lead me to believe that the practice of homosexuality is not God’s best for human flourishing, and that the greatest self-actualization and fulfillment in life is actually found when we seek to find God’s wisdom and love in a relationship with him. When we honor him by pursuing holy sexuality, and not merely heterosexuality, we attest to the need all of us have to seek God’s guidance over every area of our lives, heterosexual sexual behavior included. I have found, as I work and live life with same-sex attracted and LGBT-identified individuals, couples and groups, that I thoroughly enjoy building relationships and friendships with them. I think this heart of compassion for anyone, no matter what sin they may be engaging in, is just as true to God’s heart for us as his desire to see us follow Jesus as he has outlined in the Bible.

    I do suggest that you change the phrase “against homosexual orientation” to reflect a more realistic and common stance, which would be “not affirming of homosexual behavior.” How can I “not agree with” homosexual orientation? It is simply a reality of a person’s experience. I can disagree with what we believe to be God’s best intentions for how a person responds to their sexual attractions and how they form their sexual identity, however. Please see Dr. Mark Yarhouse’s Homosexuality and The Christian for a well-outlined explanation of these concepts.

    Reply
  4. ANDREA

    My partner is in a Christian drug rehab center for the next 3 months. Her grandmother is the only one who can see her.
    I did not know she had a problem and I am a nurse practitioner. We are both Christians. I am protestant and she Catholic. Her grandma is also protestent. Will this Christian Rehab view me as a problem since I am gay and try to change my partners orientation? Why am I not considered family on visitation day on Saturdays? I do not use drugs and consider myself a caring and loving person. Her grandom told me she would probably end up living there.. I have signed up for a separate narrow anon fail support group..s.tarts in 3 days. I am so afraid each day that passes I am losing her. I want her to be helped, but I also want to be supportive. I don’t know if her grandma or the people at rehab knows she is a lesbian. What can I expect, why do I feel so guilty, sad, lonely like sge has died and there is no one here who understands?

    Reply

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