Last week a federal appeals court heard arguments in an important religious freedom case known as Ward v. Wilbanks. The case illustrates how sexual orientation nondiscrimination policies can impose government burdens on religious and moral conscience and create serious civil society conflicts.

Julea Ward was a student in the graduate counseling program at Eastern Michigan University. She claims that she was expelled from the program after she conscientiously objected to counseling a potential client seeking assistance regarding a homosexual relationship.

According to Ward’s attorney:

Rather than allow Julea to refer a potential client to another qualified counselor—a common, professional practice to best serve clients—EMU attacked and questioned Julea’s religious beliefs and ultimately expelled her from the program because of them.

Ward also refused to undergo a “remediation” program that, she states, was designed to “change her ‘belief system’ as it relates to counseling about homosexual relationships.”

Her attorney says that Ward “would have gladly counseled the client herself had the topic focused on any other matter.” However, Ward realized that she “could not affirm the client’s homosexual relationship without violating her religious beliefs regarding extra-marital sexual relationships.”

Cases like Ward’s illustrate how nondiscrimination laws and other state-imposed burdens can transform “culture wars” into “conscience wars.” To ease such conflicts, public officials should protect religious freedom and respect moral conscience on highly controversial issues such as sexuality.