Archive | June, 2012

Michigan’s Julea Ward “Freedom Of Conscience” Act Is Anything But

21 Jun

I’m gearing up to move across the country and don’t have a ton of time to write, but this is too ridiculous and awful not to mention. Michigan’s House recently passed HB 5040, which allows students in counseling, social work, and psychology programs to refuse to serve clients with ” goals, outcomes, or behaviors that conflict with a sincerely held religious belief.” 

According to Think Progress, Julea Ward “sued Eastern Michigan University after she was kicked out of her counseling graduate program — she refused to affirm a client’s gay orientation because it ‘goes against what the Bible says.’ A federal district court judge dismissed her suit, ruling that the university ‘had a right and duty’ to enforce the professional ethic rules that dictate its counseling accreditation… The 11th Circuit similarly ruled against Jennifer Keeton, who experienced a similar situation at Augusta State University in Georgia, stating that ‘counselors must refrain from imposing their moral and religious values on their clients.’  By advancing this legislation, Michigan lawmakers are essentially attempting to circumvent — if not dictate — counseling ethical standards.”

So what’s the big deal? How can a student counselor be expected to work with a client who is engaged in behavior he or she personally finds immoral? Shouldn’t the counselor’s values matter as much as the values of her or his client?

The answer is a definitive no. As noted by the 11th Circuit Court, counselors do not impose their moral and religious values on clients. By definition. End of story. Sure, there are some basic societal moral values we’re expressly charged to uphold – if a client tells me he’s abusing his children, I get to report that – but I don’t get to force my personal moral beliefs down my clients’ throats. Counselors choose to work in a profession in which they will be expected to help people whose background, behavior, and beliefs differ from their own on a daily basis. It’s the nature of the job. I wouldn’t become a veterinarian if I were opposed to working with animals, and I wouldn’t become a psychologist or professional counselor if I were opposed to working with people with backgrounds different than my own. There are plenty of career paths available to individuals who want to limit their helping services to heterosexuals and those who closely share their beliefs: religious counselor (for some institutions) and priest/minister (for some institutions) come to mind. (So does “typical conservative Republican lawmaker” if I’m being snarky.) The counseling programs attended by Julea Ward and Jennifer Keeton were nonreligious programs at secular institutions. Professional counseling is a secular job for individuals who are willing to honor its established code of ethics, and who are willing to do their best to avoid abusing the power they are entrusted with in the room.

Our ethical code (and by ethical code I’m talking about the one my classmates and I operate under, the APA Ethical Principles and Code of Conduct, although all ethical codes for counselors look more or less the same) specifically states the following:

Psychologists are aware of cultural, individual, and role differences, including those due to age, gender, race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, disability, language, and socioeconomic status. Psychologists try to eliminate the effect on their work of biases based on those factors, and they do not knowingly participate in or condone unfair discriminatory practices.

Refusing to provide services to a person because of his or her sexual orientation is a discriminatory practice. The LGBT population is a minority population in the same way that Latino populations, African American populations, Jewish populations, and disabled populations are minority populations. A student in counseling would never be allowed to refuse to see a client because he was Black or Jewish or because she used a wheelchair. Sexual orientation is no different. Universities with programs in counseling and related fields must be allowed to uphold professional standards if we are to have a competent, ethical next generation of helping professionals.

But HB 5040 ensures that LGBT clients get services, right? Isn’t there a clause saying that clients must be referred to someone else who can provide them with the services they need?

That clause is present. And it’s true that psychologists are urged to consult on or refer clients with whom they feel they cannot competently work, and this could include a client with whom a therapist has difficulty empathizing for personal reasons. But – and this is a big but – you’re supposed to try to become competent. To unilaterally reject working with clients of a certain minority group without attempting to address the underlying personal bias present is to knowingly participate in or condone unfair discriminatory practices, practices our ethical code expressly forbids.

And frankly, refusing to work with LGBT clients (or clients in any minority group) directly opposes the ultimate goal of counseling: to help people recover from mental health problems. According to the APA, “Antigay victimization and discrimination have been associated with mental health problems and psychological distress (Cochran, Sullivan, & Mays, 2003; Gilman et al., 2001; Herek, Gillis, & Cogan, 1999; Mays & Cochran, 2001; Meyer, 1995; Ross, 1990; Rostosky, Riggle, Horne, & Miller, 2009).” Discriminating against LGBT clients perpetuates psychological problems. Transferring a client because of prejudice against his or her sexual orientation can convey extremely negative messages no matter how delicately the transfer is handled… and it’s a rare counseling student who has mastered “delicate” in the first place.

APA’s Code of Conduct states that “psychologists are aware of their professional and scientific responsibilities to the community and the society in which they work and live… Psychologists are concerned about and work to mitigate the causes of human suffering.” Bottom line: HB 5040 is designed to make it easier for psychologists and other counseling professionals to promote human suffering. Here’s hoping Michigan rejects it as the crappy piece of legislation it is.

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