Three years ago, a graduate student named Julea Ward who was part of a graduate counseling program at Eastern Michigan University refused to provide mental health treatment to a suicidal youth--all because the boy was gay. Her refusal came in the middle of a disturbing rise in suicides among gay and lesbian youth, often the targets of intense abuse and bullying in schools. Yet, this week, Ward was paid $75,000 in a settlement with her former university -- a resolution that demonstrates how far the U.S. still has to go in terms of enshrining legal protections for the LGBT community, even as the Supreme Court gears up to consider same-sex marriage rights.
The graduate student, Julea Ward, had been enrolled in a graduate counseling program at EMU, which required her to provide counseling to a number of clients. Yet, when a suicidal LGBT man sought her help in understanding his same-sex relationship, she passed the case to another client, saying that her Christian beliefs didn’t allow her to encourage the partnership. In 2009, the university expelled her from school for discriminating against a client based on sexual orientation, causing Ward to sue the school for violating her constitutional right to freedom of speech.
Tuesday, Eastern Michigan University decided to settle the case, paying Ward $75,000 instead of continuing to spend money on litigation fees. Had the university continued to fight the legal battle, however, it would have had precedent on its side. In 2010, a federal judge dismissed Ward’s original lawsuit,
stating that EMU "had a right and duty to enforce compliance."
Yet, given the prospect of mounting legal fees or the chance of establishing a precedent that would allow medial professionals to opt out of treatment based on religious opinions on same-sex partnerships, the university chose to settle instead.
This type of rights-on-rights dispute has grown increasingly common in the medical world as both mental and physical treatment bumps up against Christian religious convictions. As a Washington Post article in 2006 entitled “A Medical Crisis of Conscience”
explained, “Around the United States, health workers and patients are clashing when providers balk at giving care that they feel violates their beliefs, sparking an intense, complex and often bitter debate over religious freedom vs. patients' rights.”
So far, most of the controversy for individual doctors centers on two medical issues: women’s reproductive rights and gay and lesbian counseling. The medical research community as a whole, meanwhile, has long been torn over the issue of stem cell research.
Religious institutions are often exempt from providing treatment that goes against their stated religious values, but individual doctors and medical professionals don’t necessarily receive those same rights. Legally, the controversy boils down to a fight between two rights clauses: the patients’ right not to be discriminated against based on sexual orientation, race or gender, and the heath care professional’s “conscience protections,” which afford them the right to refuse to perform some procedures that go against their religious values.
According to the Washington Pos
t, the intensification of these issues is not only due to the expanding reach of medicine, but also the increasing power of religion in U.S. politics.
“The issue is driven by the rise in religious expression and its political prominence in the United States, and by medicine's push into controversial new areas. And it is likely to intensify as doctors start using embryonic stem cells to treat disease, as more states legalize physician-assisted suicide and as other wrenching issues emerge,” staff writer Rob Stein wrote.
The contemporary backdrop of the Ward case is, of course, the Supreme Court’s impending decision on two same-sex marriage cases. Between the Court’s willingness to hear the case and the outcome of this fall’s election, when three states voted to approve same-sex marriage, public opinion and legislation overwhelmingly appear to be moving in the direction of legalizing full marriage equality.
Yet, the Ward case demonstrates that same-sex marriage is only one aspect of full equality for LGBT individuals. The lack of access to mental health counseling creates a double-discrimination against the LGBT community. The spate of suicides of LGBT youth over the last few years has showed the intense need for mental health counseling and support networks for gay and lesbian youth, who are forced to navigate a world in which the stigma against same-sex relationships and the LGBT identity is still enshrined legally and socially. Yet, as the Ward settlement demonstrates, this community that is arguably most in need of mental health treatment also has to contend with limited access to these services--a limitation that is, as of now, quasi-legal, quasi-illegal due to the gray zone of “conscience protections” for medical health providers.