Weekly Column

Lately, it seems Christian fundamentalists have campaigned to pervert the notion of “religious freedom” to mean they have the absolute right to control lives and dictate how other people live. If they are unable to coerce or browbeat non-believers into following their church’s rules in the public square, they falsely play the victim card and cry “discrimination.”

For normal Americans, religious freedom means the right to worship according to conscience. This most basic tenet of liberty is not enough for America’s predatory fundamentalists. They believe they are superior and have the God-given right to force society to play by their rules. This inability to co-exist is a divisive and destabilizing force that must be adequately addressed.

How far will these extremists go to get their way and claim special rights? Consider a new bill proposed by two Michigan state senators, Tupac Hunter (D-Detroit) and Mark Jansen (R-Grand Rapids) that would permit students in counseling programs to refuse helping clients with issues that conflicted with their “sincerely held religious beliefs or moral convictions.”

The Michigan Messenger reported this week that this ludicrous legislation was in response to an Eastern Michigan University student, Julea Ward, who was expelled from a counseling program after declining to counsel a gay student. According to the Messenger, Ward refused to offer relationship advice because she thought it was tantamount to cheerleading a “lifestyle” that she rejected.

Ward sued in federal court, but they have so far ruled that Christians are still part of society and not above the rule of law.

“[Ward] was met with I feel an inappropriate response whereby she was penalized for having her own moral conviction,” Hunter told the Michigan Messenger. “The legislation was crafted to do exactly what it says. To prohibit an individual who is in one of those programs who has a value conflict from being discriminated against.”

First, all respected mental health organizations say that homosexuality is not a disease that can be treated. Any counseling that rejects gay relationships or coming out as an option is by nature inappropriate, unhealthy and damaging to the client. Furthermore, counseling should be about the patient, not the self-serving religious needs of the therapist. If ultra-religious counselors can’t do their jobs, they should consider a new career in the clergy, where they can indulge their beliefs.

Second, the counseling profession by nature is one where experts provide advice to people with whom they may personally disagree. It is absolutely preposterous that self-righteous therapists would install purity tests for potential clients and cherry pick the ones who are sanitized by scripture. And what happens midway though weekly therapy if the seemingly wholesome client reveals an unseemly fetish, distasteful action, or insalubrious thought? Does the offended therapist abruptly end further sessions, humiliating the client who is made to feel dirty and unworthy? Might this harsh condemnation and judgment do more damage than the original reason the individual sought help, which would rightfully be considered malpractice?

Third, the bill conveniently caters to anti-gay therapists, but ignores the consciences of counselors with controversial, yet equally sincere beliefs. When the Michigan Messenger asked Sen. Hunter about racial exceptions, he replied, “No. That is where I draw the line.” He rationalized his comments by making the false claim that the Bible prohibits homosexual activity but does not support racism. Hunter must not be aware that religious groups like the Southern Baptist Convention used the Bible to justify slavery and segregation. Or, maybe he is aware and believes that conscience only counts if it passes his “conservative correctness” test.

Finally, carving out special exemptions for blue-nosed Christian therapists would set a very dangerous precedent. The Religious Right loves to use slippery slope arguments, even if their application of them is often irrational and groundless.

In the case of the Michigan counselor, however, the slippery slope is very real and could tear apart our nation’s unity and sense of purpose. If a Christian therapist can reject gay clients, why can’t a fundamentalist mail carrier elect not to deliver letters advertising concerts for the Gay Men’s Chorus? Or what about an Orthodox Jewish deli manager working in a secular supermarket who won’t sell non-Kosher meat to reform Jews? How about a Muslim tollbooth worker of Saudi Arabian descent who refuses to let women drive through his lane because he believes it would offend Allah? (We are already seeing Christian pharmacists who deny birth control based on religious beliefs)

There is no end to the madness if we begin accommodating the supremacist and separatist impulses of fundamentalists. The Michigan bill is morally wrong, harmful to this country and could potentially create a chaotic and divisive situation where members of favored religious sects are exempt from laws that govern the general public.

As the old saying goes, if you don’t like America, you can change it or leave it. But we absolutely cannot tolerate the creation of a shadow fundamentalist nation within our borders that confuses liberty with license to run roughshod over legitimate individual rights, professional standards, and the obligations of US citizenship.