Get Real! Should I Have His Baby to Make Him Stay?

Heather Corinna

Having a child with someone doesn't increase your chances of having that person stick around.

coffee_cakes asks:

Okay so I’m 16 and have been dating my boyfriend for two months now, but we have known each other and liked each other since like age 5. But recently I found out that he had gotten his ex pregnant while they were dating and they got an abortion, that was nearly 7 months ago. She’s been contacting him and wont leave him alone. She’s trying to get him back. He says he loves me and I love him, he’s so important to my life happiness, health and just everything, I love him dearly. I’d been thinking about having his baby and now this makes me want to even more….

I’m so confused, should I be threatened by the ex? Should I have his baby? We both have jobs and he has a place for us to stay, I practically live with him as it is, he’s already got his diploma. Please help.

Heather Corinna replies:

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A baby isn’t a bargaining chip.

A baby is a very small, but very whole, person. Just like me, just like you. And a child deserves to be considered as a whole, actual person, not as an object to possibly get you what you want for yourself.

What I hear you saying is that you are now feeling a very strong desire to try to become pregnant with your very new boyfriend in order to try and one-up his ex and hang unto him. Not only does that strike me as — forgive my bluntness — one of the worst motivations for parenting I have ever heard, it also is not likely to have the effect that you want, either.

Having a child with someone doesn’t increase your chances of having that person stick around. According to the United States census, in 2006, there were 12.9 million one-parent families — and 10.4 million of those were single mother families. In the U.S, eight out of ten teenage fathers do not marry their child’s mother. I think you can see, from those statistics alone, that if you have the idea that having a baby with a guy means you’ll cement him to you, and your kid, it’d be wise to think twice. A whole lot of those single mothers thought the exact same thing.

I hear you saying things like that you need this guy to be your boyfriend for your health. Unless he is, say, paying for your healthcare coverage, I doubt that your health is impacted by having a sexual or romantic relationship with him or anyone else. I understand that when you’re young and have very strong feelings about someone it can absolutely feel like without a romance with that person you can’t survive, and the idea of losing that kind of relationship can make it feel like you can’t even breathe. But you can. And you were breathing just fine just two months ago. Even if this guy doesn’t stick around, after you get over a breakup, you’ll be just fine again, and you have the ability to be healthy and happy without a relationship with him, or even without any romance with anyone at all. And if you can’t drop the desperation, you’re unlikely to have a happy or healthy life and relationship with him or anyone else.

Here’s what I’d suggest. I know what it can be like to grow up fast, but I think it’d be a good idea to do a reality check and remember that you are 16 years old, and also remember that you are in a very new dating relationship of just a couple months. You may have liked this guy since you were wee, but this is still a brand-new dating relationship. So, take your time in it. Have the kind of relationship most people have at your age and the kind people have when relationships are just a handful of weeks old. Go out together and share your interests. Talk a lot, talk more and more deeply. See how you two really do or don’t actually work in a love relationship, something that takes more than a childhood crush and two months of dating to suss out. Hang out with each others families: see how that goes. be sure you’re not moving too fast: cut down on the nights you stay there, and be sure you’re spending plenty of time with your friends and in the other parts of your life so you don’t get tunnel vision. And if you have a conflict like you feel you have with an ex, try handling it with maturity and good sense by doing something like talking with her about this. Heck, in doing so, you may find her perspectives on what her relationship was like with him tell you some things you may have needed to know.

If it feels to you like his being with you is something that makes or breaks your own value of yourself, then you’re also going to want to be sure you are doing things for your own life, which are about your own goals, separate from a love relationship. Love relationships can be awesome, to be sure, but a whole life they are not. So, work towards your own diploma. Make time for your own interests and dreams. See your life as bigger than this guy. All of that is important not just so you can be good with you, but healthy relationships tend to require people who are healthy all on their own. We also know that among teens who are trying to become pregnant, one common thread is that those teens often don’t have great self-esteem, and see their life options as very limited. So, I’d remind you that if you have that idea, know that more than anything else, your limitations are what you make them. If you aren’t limiting yourself, chances are the sky is the limit when it comes to what you do with your life.

If the guy you are seeing has a habit of not cooperating and doing his part when it comes to birth control that’s pretty bad news, by the way. It doesn’t say good things about him, and certainly not about his ability to be responsible, and that’s a super-big deal if you’re considering co-parenting with someone. A guy who can’t handle a condom, or who doesn’t understand how big a deal a pregnancy is, especially for the youngest women, is pretty unlikely to be able to handle a kid or even get what being a parent requires. I’d also say that a guy who is either actively or passively trying to get teen women to become pregnant is someone who clearly does not understand that for women, pregnancy and parenting is a far different thing than it is for men. He can just walk away: you can’t. His health will be in no way impacted or at risk: yours will. He won’t wind up socially isolated and lonely: you probably will. He won’t be waking up at all hours to nurse: you will. He already has his diploma: if you become pregnant, there’s a very good chance you won’t get yours.

If you’re going to continue having sex with this guy, I’d strongly suggest that you only do so if you are using a reliable method of birth control every single time. Safer sex is also an issue: if you’ve only been dating two months and you are not using condoms, you’ve been at a high risk of sexually transmitted infections, particularly since it seems he has had unprotected sex with at least one previous partner. Are both of you current with tests for those infections? If not, it’s time to go and get those, and that means him, too. (And if you don’t feel like you can ask him to do something as basic and easy as that, I think it’s very obvious you two are nothing close to ready to do something far more loaded and complicated like negotiate parenting together.)

Let’s talk a bit more about choosing to become pregnant.

The choice to be a parent is a huge one: about as huge as it gets in life, as any mother will tell you. Babies don’t stay babies, and if you become a mother, you’re a mother for the rest of your life. And when you choose to become a mother very young, you’re choosing to parent at what will likely be the toughest time for you to do so, when you will have the least resources, the least cultural and community support (that’s not your fault or the fault of teen moms, but that is how it is), and the least stability, which helps a whole lot when parenting: helps you, helps a kid who very much needs stability, not drama and chaos. When you choose to become a parent at a time when a relationship may be in crisis — with the magical thinking a kid will fix things, something nearly everyone who has ever tried that has learned the hard way is false thinking — you’re choosing to do so at the worst time, not the best.

Whether the father of your child sticks around or leaves, you and that kid — who doesn’t get a choice in any of this — are tied to that person in some way for life.

I know that might sound like what you want right now, but that kind of tie may not look like you think it will, or have anything to do with romance or love. It may wind up being about chasing someone down for child support when you can’t feed yourself or your kid, about watching that person hook up with more teenage girls and get more of them pregnant, about comforting your kid when that person is an absent parent to them, about seeing that person seem to succeed and do just fine while you and your kid are struggling or about living with someone who does stick around but only out of obligation and resents you for it the whole time, treating you and/or your kid with nothing that resembles love.

So, who we choose to have kids with is a very big decision, one that we never want to make in haste. Again, this isn’t just about us, it’s about who we our choosing to have a kid be bound to for the whole of their lives. I think you and I can agree that making a choice like this as hastily as you’re about to make it, and with the motivation you have — which isn’t about a kid at all, but just about your immediate wants — is a story you’d probably not want to tell a kid who had to struggle growing up because of your choice. “His other girlfriend wanted him back, and I had to have something to compete with, so I made you,” is a pretty lousy tale. Every kid deserves better than that.

Your boyfriend has choices. His ex can’t steal him: he’s a person, not a purse.

He chooses who he dates, is sexual with, has relationships with and who he does not. Sometimes women can get in a headspace where they get all caught up in this idea that the love or attention of a guy is about women competing with women and forget that something like this isn’t about an epic battle between two women, it’s about the choices that guy makes which neither of you can control. This other woman isn’t your enemy: she’s someone who probably felt or feels the exact same way you do right now, and who knows how your boyfriend really is dealing with her, anyway, or how their relationship went down. If he’s made your promises lately, he may have been making the same ones to her. As I mentioned earlier, I’d say that the way to deal with this with maturity is to simply see if you can’t talk to her — not yell at her, not show up with a knife screaming about “Your man,” — calmly about how both of you are feeling.

Love shouldn’t feel like something we have to prove like this: when we love and are loved, it’s not something we need to win or earn, or try and get by making huge sacrifices or putting ourselves and others at risk. You becoming pregnant at 16 puts your health and life at risk, and you having a kid in this kind of context also puts that kid at risk. None of this, by the way, involves your boyfriend taking any such risks himself. I hope you can see how unbalanced that is.

You’re going to feel a lot more loved by someone when they simply love you for who you are, not for what crazy, reckless thing you’ll do to “prove” your love for them or show them you’re more wigged out about them leaving you than someone else they like. If you get pregnant now, whether he stays or he goes, you still don’t get to know if he actually has love for you, because even if he stays, it’s going to be tough to know if he is staying because he wants to be with you, or staying because you’ve created a situation where he feels trapped or like he’d be a bad person not if he left you, but if he left a kid. You’re going to know you are loved and that someone wants to stay with you when they choose to freely, not when you do something nuts to try and force them to stay.

I’m going to go back to that nonexistent kid one more time before I’m through. Kids need more than a place to stay and a parent with a high school diploma and a job. They need a lot of love and attention (which is tough to have for them if we’re giving all of it to someone else in trying to keep them around). They need parents who have some real maturity, a lot of selflessness and plenty of stability and support. They need parents who have good self-esteem of their own, and feel good about themselves whether or not they’re together or in a love relationship with someone. They need parents who can tell the difference between love and a soap opera.

I’m of the mind that when we have a choice in pregnancy — and you clearly do — that we owe it to children to make those choices in their best interest first. Our interests are not unimportant, but I’d say they are secondary since, again, that kid doesn’t get a choice. We make these choices for them, and that’s a big responsibility. Kids deserve parents who are really ready to be partners, which includes things like being able to never try and use a child as leverage or as a way to get something you want. Once more, children are people, and very defenseless people who depend on parents to make the best choices for them.

If becoming a mother is something that’s part of what you want for your life, you could certainly start doing things that prepare you for that and help you plan for that, like finishing school, being sure that you are in stable relationships (which this does not sound like at all), doing the things in your life first you want to do which will be harder or impossible to do with a child, prepping for a good career that will support you and a child well and work with life as a mother.

While teen pregnancy happens sometimes, many teens have choices, and can choose to do all they can to prevent that until the time really is right for parenting, be that not having sex or always using reliable birth control methods, and choosing partners who do their part with those, too. This clearly sounds like a very bad time and a very bad reason to have a kid. I’d suggest you hold off on parenting until at least a bit later when you are more prepared, when you have your own diploma, a place that’s also really yours, when you’re a bit older, and when you’re choosing to parent with someone who you know wants to stay with you, who has demonstrated that over considerable time (read: not two months, let’s try two years, five years or ten years), and who you feel loved by, full-stop, without anyone bringing a big bucket of crazy.

Here are a few extra links to help round all of this out:

Analysis Economic Justice

New Pennsylvania Bill Is Just One Step Toward Helping Survivors of Economic Abuse

Annamarya Scaccia

The legislation would allow victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking to terminate their lease early or request locks be changed if they have "a reasonable fear" that they will continue to be harmed while living in their unit.

Domestic violence survivors often face a number of barriers that prevent them from leaving abusive situations. But a new bill awaiting action in the Pennsylvania legislature would let survivors in the state break their rental lease without financial repercussions—potentially allowing them to avoid penalties to their credit and rental history that could make getting back on their feet more challenging. Still, the bill is just one of several policy improvements necessary to help survivors escape abusive situations.

Right now in Pennsylvania, landlords can take action against survivors who break their lease as a means of escape. That could mean a lien against the survivor or an eviction on their credit report. The legislation, HB 1051, introduced by Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-Montgomery County), would allow victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking to terminate their lease early or request locks be changed if they have “a reasonable fear” that they will continue to be harmed while living in their unit. The bipartisan bill, which would amend the state’s Landlord and Tenant Act, requires survivors to give at least 30 days’ notice of their intent to be released from the lease.

Research shows survivors often return to or delay leaving abusive relationships because they either can’t afford to live independently or have little to no access to financial resources. In fact, a significant portion of homeless women have cited domestic violence as the leading cause of homelessness.

“As a society, we get mad at survivors when they don’t leave,” Kim Pentico, economic justice program director of the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV), told Rewire. “You know what, her name’s on this lease … That’s going to impact her ability to get and stay safe elsewhere.”

“This is one less thing that’s going to follow her in a negative way,” she added.

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Pennsylvania landlords have raised concerns about the law over liability and rights of other tenants, said Ellen Kramer, deputy director of program services at the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence, which submitted a letter in support of the bill to the state House of Representatives. Lawmakers have considered amendments to the bill—like requiring “proof of abuse” from the courts or a victim’s advocate—that would heed landlord demands while still attempting to protect survivors.

But when you ask a survivor to go to the police or hospital to obtain proof of abuse, “it may put her in a more dangerous position,” Kramer told Rewire, noting that concessions that benefit landlords shift the bill from being victim-centered.

“It’s a delicate balancing act,” she said.

The Urban Affairs Committee voted HB 1051 out of committee on May 17. The legislation was laid on the table on June 23, but has yet to come up for a floor vote. Whether the bill will move forward is uncertain, but proponents say that they have support at the highest levels of government in Pennsylvania.

“We have a strong advocate in Governor Wolf,” Kramer told Rewire.

Financial Abuse in Its Many Forms

Economic violence is a significant characteristic of domestic violence, advocates say. An abuser will often control finances in the home, forcing their victim to hand over their paycheck and not allow them access to bank accounts, credit cards, and other pecuniary resources. Many abusers will also forbid their partner from going to school or having a job. If the victim does work or is a student, the abuser may then harass them on campus or at their place of employment until they withdraw or quit—if they’re not fired.

Abusers may also rack up debt, ruin their partner’s credit score, and cancel lines of credit and insurance policies in order to exact power and control over their victim. Most offenders will also take money or property away from their partner without permission.

“Financial abuse is so multifaceted,” Pentico told Rewire.

Pentico relayed the story of one survivor whose abuser smashed her cell phone because it would put her in financial dire straits. As Pentico told it, the abuser stole her mobile phone, which was under a two-year contract, and broke it knowing that the victim could not afford a new handset. The survivor was then left with a choice of paying for a bill on a phone she could no longer use or not paying the bill at all and being turned into collections, which would jeopardize her ability to rent her own apartment or switch to a new carrier. “Things she can’t do because he smashed her smartphone,” Pentico said.

“Now the general public [could] see that as, ‘It’s a phone, get over it,'” she told Rewire. “Smashing that phone in a two-year contract has such ripple effects on her financial world and on her ability to get and stay safe.”

In fact, members of the public who have not experienced domestic abuse may overlook financial abuse or minimize it. A 2009 national poll from the Allstate Foundation—the philanthropic arm of the Illinois-based insurance company—revealed that nearly 70 percent of Americans do not associate financial abuse with domestic violence, even though it’s an all-too-common tactic among abusers: Economic violence happens in 98 percent of abusive relationships, according to the NNEDV.

Why people fail to make this connection can be attributed, in part, to the lack of legal remedy for financial abuse, said Carol Tracy, executive director of the Women’s Law Project, a public interest law center in Pennsylvania. A survivor can press criminal charges or seek a civil protection order when there’s physical abuse, but the country’s legal justice system has no equivalent for economic or emotional violence, whether the victim is married to their abuser or not, she said.

Some advocates, in lieu of recourse through the courts, have teamed up with foundations to give survivors individual tools to use in economically abusive situations. In 2005, the NNEDV partnered with the Allstate Foundation to develop a curriculum that would teach survivors about financial abuse and financial safety. Through the program, survivors are taught about financial safety planning including individual development accounts, IRA, microlending credit repair, and credit building services.

State coalitions can receive grant funding to develop or improve economic justice programs for survivors, as well as conduct economic empowerment and curriculum trainings with local domestic violence groups. In 2013—the most recent year for which data is available—the foundation awarded $1 million to state domestic violence coalitions in grants that ranged from $50,000 to $100,000 to help support their economic justice work.

So far, according to Pentico, the curriculum has performed “really great” among domestic violence coalitions and its clients. Survivors say they are better informed about economic justice and feel more empowered about their own skills and abilities, which has allowed them to make sounder financial decisions.

This, in turn, has allowed them to escape abuse and stay safe, she said.

“We for a long time chose to see money and finances as sort of this frivolous piece of the safety puzzle,” Pentico told Rewire. “It really is, for many, the piece of the puzzle.”

Public Policy as a Means of Economic Justice

Still, advocates say that public policy, particularly disparate workplace conditions, plays an enormous role in furthering financial abuse. The populations who are more likely to be victims of domestic violence—women, especially trans women and those of color—are also the groups more likely to be underemployed or unemployed. A 2015 LGBT Health & Human Services Network survey, for example, found that 28 percent of working-age transgender women were unemployed and out of school.

“That’s where [economic abuse] gets complicated,” Tracy told Rewire. “Some of it is the fault of the abuser, and some of it is the public policy failures that just don’t value women’s participation in the workforce.”

Victims working low-wage jobs often cannot save enough to leave an abusive situation, advocates say. What they do make goes toward paying bills, basic living needs, and their share of housing expenses—plus child-care costs if they have kids. In the end, they’re not left with much to live on—that is, if their abuser hasn’t taken away access to their own earnings.

“The ability to plan your future, the ability to get away from [abuse], that takes financial resources,” Tracy told Rewire. “It’s just so much harder when you don’t have them and when you’re frightened, and you’re frightened for yourself and your kids.”

Public labor policy can also inhibit a survivor’s ability to escape. This year, five states, Washington, D.C., and 24 jurisdictions will have passed or enacted paid sick leave legislation, according to A Better Balance, a family and work legal center in New York City. As of April, only one of those states—California—also passed a state paid family leave insurance law, which guarantees employees receive pay while on leave due to pregnancy, disability, or serious health issues. (New Jersey, Rhode Island, Washington, and New York have passed similar laws.) Without access to paid leave, Tracy said, survivors often cannot “exercise one’s rights” to file a civil protection order, attend court hearings, or access housing services or any other resource needed to escape violence.

Furthermore, only a handful of state laws protect workers from discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, and pregnancy or familial status (North Carolina, on the other hand, recently passed a draconian state law that permits wide-sweeping bias in public and the workplace). There is no specific federal law that protects LGBTQ workers, but the U.S. Employment Opportunity Commission has clarified that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does prohibit discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation.

Still, that doesn’t necessarily translate into practice. For example, the National Center for Transgender Equality found that 26 percent of transgender people were let go or fired because of anti-trans bias, while 50 percent of transgender workers reported on-the-job harassment. Research shows transgender people are at a higher risk of being fired because of their trans identity, which would make it harder for them to leave an abusive relationship.

“When issues like that intersect with domestic violence, it’s devastating,” Tracy told Rewire. “Frequently it makes it harder, if not impossible, for [victims] to leave battering situations.”

For many survivors, their freedom from abuse also depends on access to public benefits. Programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the child and dependent care credit, and earned income tax credit give low-income survivors access to the money and resources needed to be on stable economic ground. One example: According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, where a family of three has one full-time nonsalary worker earning $10 an hour, SNAP can increase their take-home income by up to 20 percent.

These programs are “hugely important” in helping lift survivors and their families out of poverty and offset the financial inequality they face, Pentico said.

“When we can put cash in their pocket, then they may have the ability to then put a deposit someplace or to buy a bus ticket to get to family,” she told Rewire.

But these programs are under constant attack by conservative lawmakers. In March, the House Republicans approved a 2017 budget plan that would all but gut SNAP by more than $150 million over the next ten years. (Steep cuts already imposed on the food assistance program have led to as many as one million unemployed adults losing their benefits over the course of this year.) The House GOP budget would also strip nearly $500 billion from other social safety net programs including TANF, child-care assistance, and the earned income tax credit.

By slashing spending and imposing severe restrictions on public benefits, politicians are guaranteeing domestic violence survivors will remain stuck in a cycle of poverty, advocates say. They will stay tethered to their abuser because they will be unable to have enough money to live independently.

“When women leave in the middle of the night with the clothes on their back, kids tucked under their arms, come into shelter, and have no access to finances or resources, I can almost guarantee you she’s going to return,” Pentico told Rewire. “She has to return because she can’t afford not to.”

By contrast, advocates say that improving a survivor’s economic security largely depends on a state’s willingness to remedy what they see as public policy failures. Raising the minimum wage, mandating equal pay, enacting paid leave laws, and prohibiting employment discrimination—laws that benefit the entire working class—will make it much less likely that a survivor will have to choose between homelessness and abuse.

States can also pass proactive policies like the bill proposed in Pennsylvania, to make it easier for survivors to leave abusive situations in the first place. Last year, California enacted a law that similarly allows abuse survivors to terminate their lease without getting a restraining order or filing a police report permanent. Virginia also put in place an early lease-termination law for domestic violence survivors in 2013.

A “more equitable distribution of wealth is what we need, what we’re talking about,” Tracy told Rewire.

As Pentico put it, “When we can give [a survivor] access to finances that help her get and stay safe for longer, her ability to protect herself and her children significantly increases.”

Analysis Law and Policy

Do Counselors-in-Training Have the Right to Discriminate Against LGBTQ People?

Greg Lipper

Doctors can't treat their patients with leeches; counselors can't impose their beliefs on patients or harm them using discredited methods. Whatever their views, medical professionals have to treat their clients competently.

Whether they’re bakers, florists, or government clerks, those claiming the right to discriminate against LGBTQ people have repeatedly sought to transform professional services into constitutionally protected religious speech. They have grabbed headlines for refusing, for example, to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples or to make cakes for same-sex couples’ weddings-all in the name of “religious freedom.”

A bit more quietly, however, a handful of counseling students at public universities have challenged their schools’ nondiscrimination and treatment requirements governing clinical placements. In some cases, they have sought a constitutional right to withhold treatment from LGBTQ clients; in others, they have argued for the right to directly impose their religious and anti-gay views on their clients.

There has been some state legislative maneuvering on this front: Tennessee, for instance, recently enacted a thinly veiled anti-LGBTQ measure that would allow counselors to deny service on account of their “sincerely held principles.” But when it comes to the federal Constitution, providing medical treatment—whether bypass surgery, root canal, or mental-health counseling—isn’t advocacy (religious or otherwise) protected by the First Amendment. Counselors are medical professionals; they are hired to help their clients, no matter their race, religion, or sexual orientation, and no matter the counselors’ beliefs. The government, moreover, may lawfully prevent counselors from harming their clients, and universities in particular have an interest, recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court, in preventing discrimination in school activities and in training their students to work with diverse populations.

The plaintiffs in these cases have nonetheless argued that their schools are unfairly and unconstitutionally targeting them for their religious beliefs. But these students are not being targeted, any more than are business owners who must comply with civil rights laws. Instead, their universities, informed by the rules of the American Counseling Association (ACA)—the leading organization of American professional counselors—merely ask that all students learn to treat diverse populations and to do so in accordance with the standard of care. These plaintiffs, as a result, have yet to win a constitutional right to discriminate against or impose anti-LGBTQ views on actual or prospective clients. But cases persist, and the possibility of conflicting court decisions looms.

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Keeton v. Anderson-Wiley

The first major challenge to university counseling requirements came from Jennifer Keeton, who hoped to receive a master’s degree in school counseling from Augusta State University. As detailed in the 2011 11th Circuit Court of Appeals decision considering her case, Keeton entered her professional training believing that (1) “sexual behavior is the result of personal choice for which individuals are accountable, not inevitable deterministic forces”; (2) “gender is fixed and binary (i.e., male or female), not a social construct or personal choice subject to individual change”; and “homosexuality is a ‘lifestyle,’ not a ‘state of being.'”

It wasn’t those views alone, however, that sunk her educational plans. The problem, rather, was that Keeton wanted to impose her views on her patients. Keeton had told both her classmates and professors about her clinical approach at a university-run clinic, and it wasn’t pretty:

  • She would try to change the sexual orientation of gay clients;
  • If she were counseling a sophomore student in crisis questioning his sexual orientation, she would respond by telling the student that it was not OK to be gay.
  • If a client disclosed that he was gay, she would tell him that his behavior was wrong and try to change it; if she were unsuccessful, she would refer the client to someone who practices “conversion therapy.”

Unsurprisingly, Keeton also told school officials that it would be difficult for her to work with LGBTQ clients.

Keeton’s approach to counseling not only would have flouted the university’s curricular guidelines, but also would have violated the ACA’s Code of Ethics.

Her conduct would have harmed her patients as well. As a school counselor, Keeton would inevitably have to counsel LGBTQ clients: 57 percent of LGBTQ students have sought help from a school professional and 42 percent have sought help from a school counselor. Suicide is the leading cause of death for LGBTQ adolescents; that’s twice or three times the suicide rate afflicting their heterosexual counterparts. And Keeton’s preferred approach to counseling LGBTQ students would harm them: LGBTQ students rejected by trusted authority figures are even more likely to attempt suicide, and anti-gay “conversion therapy” at best doesn’t work and at worst harms patients too.

Seeking to protect the university’s clinical patients and train her to be a licensed mental health professional, university officials asked Keeton to complete a remediation plan before she counseled students in her required clinical practicum. She refused; the university expelled her. In response, the Christian legal group Alliance Defending Freedom sued on her behalf, claiming that the university violated her First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and the free exercise of religion.

The courts disagreed. The trial court ruled against Keeton, and a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit unanimously upheld the trial court’s ruling. The 11th Circuit explained that Keeton was expelled not because of her religious beliefs, but rather because of her “own statements that she intended to impose her personal religious beliefs on clients and refer clients to conversion therapy, and her own admissions that it would be difficult for her to work with the GLBTQ population and separate her own views from those of the client.” It was Keeton, not the university, who could not separate her personal beliefs from the professional counseling that she provided: “[F]ar from compelling Keeton to profess a belief or change her own beliefs about the morality of homosexuality, [the university] instructs her not to express her personal beliefs regarding the client’s moral values.”

Keeton, in other words, crossed the line between beliefs and conduct. She may believe whatever she likes, but she may not ignore academic and professional requirements designed to protect her clients—especially when serving clients at a university-run clinic.

As the court explained, the First Amendment would not prohibit a medical school from requiring students to perform blood transfusions in their clinical placements, nor would it prohibit a law school from requiring extra ethics training for a student who “expressed an intent to indiscriminately disclose her client’s secrets or violate another of the state bar’s rules.” Doctors can’t treat their patients with leeches; counselors can’t impose their beliefs on patients or harm them using discredited methods. Whatever their views, medical professionals have to treat their clients competently.

Ward v. Polite

The Alliance Defending Freedom’s follow-up case, Ward v. Polite, sought to give counseling students the right to withhold service from LGBTQ patients and also to practice anti-gay “conversion therapy” on those patients. The case’s facts were a bit murkier, and this led the appeals court to send it to trial; as a result, the student ultimately extracted only a modest settlement from the university. But as in Keeton’s case, the court rejected in a 2012 decision the attempt to give counseling students the right to impose their religious views on their clients.

Julea Ward studied counseling at Eastern Michigan University; like Keeton, she was training to be a school counselor. When she reviewed the file for her third client in the required clinical practicum, she realized that he was seeking counseling about a romantic relationship with someone of the same sex. As the Court of Appeals recounted, Ward did not want to counsel the client about this topic, and asked her faculty supervisor “(1) whether she should meet with the client and refer him [to a different counselor] only if it became necessary—only if the counseling session required Ward to affirm the client’s same-sex relationship—or (2) whether the school should reassign the client from the outset.” Although her supervisor reassigned the client, it was the first time in 20 years that one of her students had made such a request. So Ward’s supervisor scheduled a meeting with her.

Then things went off the rails. Ward, explained the court, “reiterated her religious objection to affirming same-sex relationships.” She told university officials that while she had “no problem counseling gay and lesbian clients,” she would counsel them only if “the university did not require her to affirm their sexual orientation.” She also refused to counsel “heterosexual clients about extra-marital sex and adultery in a values-affirming way.” As for the professional rules governing counselors, Ward said, “who’s the [American Counseling Association] to tell me what to do. I answer to a higher power and I’m not selling out God.”

All this led the university to expel Ward, and she sued. She claimed that the university violated her free speech and free exercise rights, and that she had a constitutional right to withhold affirming therapy relating to any same-sex relationships or different-sex relationships outside of marriage. Like Keeton, Ward also argued that the First Amendment prohibited the university from requiring “gay-affirmative therapy” while prohibiting “reparative therapy.” After factual discovery, the trial court dismissed her case.

On appeal before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, Ward eked out a narrow and temporary win: The court held that the case should go to a jury. Because the university did not have a written policy prohibiting referrals, and based on a few troubling faculty statements during Ward’s review, the court ruled that a reasonable jury could potentially find that the university invoked a no-referrals policy “as a pretext for punishing Ward’s religious views and speech.” At the same time, the court recognized that a jury could view the facts less favorably to Ward and rule for the university.

And although the decision appeared to sympathize with Ward’s desire to withhold service from certain types of clients, the court flatly rejected Ward’s sweeping arguments that she had the right to stray from the school curriculum, refuse to counsel LGBTQ clients, or practice anti-gay “conversion therapy.” For one, it said, “Curriculum choices are a form of school speech, giving schools considerable flexibility in designing courses and policies and in enforcing them so long as they amount to reasonable means of furthering legitimate educational ends.” Thus, the problem was “not the adoption of this anti-discrimination policy, the existence of the practicum class or even the values-affirming message the school wants students to understand and practice.” On the contrary, the court emphasized “the [legal] latitude educational institutions—at any level—must have to further legitimate curricular objectives.”

Indeed, the university had good reason to require counseling students—especially those studying to be school counselors—to treat diverse populations. A school counselor who refuses to counsel anyone with regard to nonmarital, nonheterosexual relationships will struggle to find clients: Nearly four in five Americans have had sex by age 21; more than half have done so by the time they turn 18, while only 6 percent of women and 2 percent of men are married by that age.

In any event, withholding service from entire classes of people violates professional ethical rules even for nonschool counselors. Although the ACA permits client referrals in certain circumstances, the agency’s brief in Ward’s case emphasized that counselors may not refuse to treat entire groups. Ward, in sum, “violated the ACA Code of Ethics by refusing to counsel clients who may wish to discuss homosexual relationships, as well as others who fail to comport with her religious teachings, e.g., persons who engage in ‘fornication.'”

But Ward’s approach would have been unethical even if, in theory, she were permitted to withhold service from each and every client seeking counseling related to nonmarital sex (or even marital sex by same-sex couples). Because in many cases, the need for referral would arise well into the counseling relationship. And as the trial court explained, “a client may seek counseling for depression, or issues with their parents, and end up discussing a homosexual relationship.” No matter what the reason, mid-counseling referrals harm clients, and such referrals are even more harmful if they happen because the counselor disapproves of the client.

Fortunately, Ward did not win the sweeping right to harm her clients or otherwise upend professional counseling standards. Rather, the court explained that “the even-handed enforcement of a neutral policy”—such as the ACA’s ethical rules—”is likely to steer clear of the First Amendment’s free-speech and free-exercise protections.” (Full disclosure: I worked on an amicus brief in support of the university when at Americans United.)

Ward’s lawyers pretended that she won the case, but she ended up settling it for relatively little. She received only $75,000; and although the expulsion was removed from her record, she was not reinstated. Without a graduate counseling degree, she cannot become a licensed counselor.

Cash v. Hofherr

The latest anti-gay counseling salvo comes from Andrew Cash, whose April 2016 lawsuit against Missouri State University attempts to rely on yet murkier facts and could wind up, on appeal, in front of the more conservative U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. In addition to his range of constitutional claims (freedom of speech, free exercise of religion, equal protection of law), he has added a claim under the Missouri Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

The complaint describes Cash as “a Christian with sincerely-held beliefs”—as opposed to insincere ones, apparently—”on issues of morality.” Cash started his graduate counseling program at Missouri State University in September 2007. The program requires a clinical internship, which includes 240 hours of in-person client contact. Cash decided to do his clinical internship at Springfield Marriage and Family Institute, which appeared on the counseling department’s list of approved sites. Far from holding anti-Christian bias, Cash’s instructor agreed that his proposed class presentation on “Christian counseling and its unique approach and value to the Counseling profession” was an “excellent” idea.

But the presentation itself revealed that Cash intended to discriminate against LGBTQ patients. In response to a question during the presentation, the head of the Marriage and Family Institute stated that “he would counsel gay persons as individuals, but not as couples, because of his religious beliefs,” and that he would “refer the couple for counseling to other counselors he knew who did not share his religious views.” Because discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation violates ACA guidelines, the university determined that Cash should not continue counseling at the Marriage and Family Institute and that it would be removed from the approved list of placements. Cash suggested, however, that he should be able to withhold treatment from same-sex couples.

All this took place in 2011. The complaint (both the original and amended versions) evades precisely what happened between 2012 and 2014, when Cash was finally expelled. You get the sense that Cash’s lawyers at the Thomas More Society are trying to yadda-yadda-yadda the most important facts of the case.

In any event, the complaint does acknowledge that when Cash applied for a new internship, he both ignored the university’s instructions that the previous hours were not supposed to count toward his requirement, and appeared to be “still very much defend[ing] his previous internship stating that there was nothing wrong with it”—thus suggesting that he would continue to refuse to counsel same-sex couples. He continued to defend his position in later meetings with school officials; by November 2014, the university removed him from the program.

Yet in challenging this expulsion, Cash’s complaint says that he was merely “expressing his Christian worldview regarding a hypothetical situation concerning whether he would provide counseling services to a gay/homosexual couple.”

That’s more than just a worldview, though. It also reflects his intent to discriminate against a class of people—in a manner that violates his program’s requirements and the ACA guidelines. Whether hypothetically or otherwise, Cash stated and reiterated that he would withhold treatment from same-sex couples. A law student who stated, as part of his clinic, that he would refuse to represent Christian clients would be announcing his intent to violate the rules of professional responsibility, and the law school could and would remove him from the school’s legal clinic. And they could and would do so even if a Christian client had yet to walk in the door.

But maybe this was just a big misunderstanding, and Cash would, in practice, be willing and able to counsel same-sex couples? Not so, said Cash’s lawyer from the Thomas More Society, speaking about the case to Christian news outlet WORLD: “I think Christians have to go on the offensive, or it’s going to be a situation like Sodom and Gomorrah in the Bible, where you aren’t safe to have a guest in your home, with the demands of the gay mob.” Yikes.

Although Cash seems to want a maximalist decision allowing counselors and counseling students to withhold service from LGBTQ couples, it remains to be seen how the case will turn out. The complaint appears to elide two years’ worth of key facts in order to present Cash’s claims as sympathetically as possible; even if the trial court were to rule in favor of the university after more factual development, Cash would have the opportunity to appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, one of the country’s most conservative federal appeals courts.

More generally, we’re still early in the legal battles over attempts to use religious freedom rights as grounds to discriminate; only a few courts across the country have weighed in. So no matter how extreme Cash or his lawyers may seem, it’s too early to count them out.

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The cases brought by Keeton, Ward, and Cash not only attempt to undermine anti-discrimination policies. They also seek to change the nature of the counselor-client relationship. Current norms provide that a counselor is a professional who provides a service to a client. But the plaintiffs in these cases seem to think that counseling a patient is no different than lecturing a passerby in the town square, in that counseling a patient necessarily involves expressing the counselor’s personal and religious beliefs. Courts have thus far rejected these attempts to redefine the counselor-patient relationship, just as they have turned away attempts to challenge bans on “reparative therapy.”

The principles underlying the courts’ decisions protect more than just LGBTQ clients. As the 11th Circuit explained in Keeton, the university trains students to “be competent to work with all populations, and that all students not impose their personal religious values on their clients, whether, for instance, they believe that persons ought to be Christians rather than Muslims, Jews or atheists, or that homosexuality is moral or immoral.” Licensed professionals are supposed to help their clients, not treat them as prospective converts.