Crossing the line from religious protection to bigotry

This blog post was written by Jessica Kelton of Lansing and is published with her permission.

Controversy has enthralled Julea Ward, an expelled former graduate student at Eastern Michigan University. 

Ms. Ward was studying counseling at EMU, whereupon being assigned to counsel a gay student on his romantic relationship she refused, citing religious beliefs and requested the student be transferred to another student counselor.  EMU subsequently expelled Ms. Ward from its counseling program after further review, and its action was later upheld in federal court.

In an overreaction, Republican state Senator Mark Jansen and Democratic state Senator Tupac Hunter introduced legislation protecting college students in counseling, social work, or psychology programs who refuse to counsel students in situations that conflict with a “sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction.” 

As the cross currents of religion and culture clash, it would be unfair to not recognize the anxieties and discomfort existing in the religious community as society evolves; however, our state government is not the best place to address these concerns.

With this proposed legislation, Senators Jansen and Hunter will surely receive accolades from the special interests they serve and the media attention they crave.  Unfortunately, clumsy laws have clumsy consequences. 

Take the case of former Louisiana Justice of the Peace Keith Bardwell, who in 2009 denied an interracial couple a marriage license.  Similar to Ms. Ward, Mr. Bardwell referred the couple to another justice of the peace.  Citing decades of personal experience and interactions with different racial groups, Bardwell asserts he cannot be a part of bringing an interracial child into the world, because “In my heart, I feel the children will later suffer.” 

This deeply held belief has forced Bardwell to turn down four interracial couples for marriage licenses in a period less than three years.  When Senator Hunter criticizes EMU’s action and declares Ward “was penalized for having her own moral conviction,” I wonder if he would defend others like Bardwell who may refuse to counsel interracial couples based on the sincerely held view “there is a problem with both groups [black and white] accepting a child from such a marriage.”

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