Federal Appeal of Counseling Student’s Expulsion
There’s a fascinating new federal appeal involving the expulsion of a counseling graduate student in Michigan. Here’s what happened: The student was doing supervised counseling in a school-operated clinic as part of her training. When she was assigned to counsel a gay couple with a relationship issue, the devoutly Christian student informed her supervisor that she wasn’t the best counselor for the couple, as homosexuality is incompatible with her religious beliefs. The supervisor advised the student to refer the couple to another counselor, which the student did. The school, Eastern Michigan University, then told the student that she had to attend a remedial course to “correct” her beliefs about gay and lesbian relationships. When the student made it clear that her religious beliefs would not be changed, the school expelled her from the counseling program. The student sued the school in federal court, alleging that the school had discriminated against her on the basis of her religious beliefs. The school argued that the student had been expelled not for her religious beliefs but for herself discriminating against the gay couple in violation of school policy and professional counseling ethics. At the district court level, the school won, so the student is now appealing.
Unless there are pivotal facts that haven’t been reported, this student should win the appeal, and here’s why: It’s true that mental health professional ethics rightly dictate that mental health professionals should not discriminate against patients based on personal biases (i.e. should not refuse to treat patients based on the patients’ races, religions, etc.). Mental health professional ethics also dictate, however, that whenever a mental health professional is unable to effectively assist a patient for any reason (a conflict of interest, a lack of necessary expertise in the patient’s resenting problem, the professional’s own mental or physical health problems, etc.), the professional should refer the patient to another qualified professional as soon as possible. This student didn’t discriminate against all gay and lesbian patients. She didn’t, for example, refuse to counsel a depressed man who happened to be gay. This student had a moral conflict of interest that rendered her unable to support these particular patients’ counseling goals – the continuation and betterment of a sexual relationship between two people of the same sex – in good conscience. That made the student a sub-optimal counselor for the couple, and there were other counselors immediately available who did not share the conflict, making them far better suited to the couple’s needs.
Personally, I don’t share this student’s moral problem with homosexuality (although, as a straight man, I’ve never experienced, nor have I ever studied or treated issues that may be unique to gay and lesbian relationships, so I still may not have been an optimal clinician for the couple if there were an available professional who had superior subject-matter expertise). I do, however, have a moral problem with spousal infidelity, so, for example, I wouldn’t try to help a cheating husband to improve his relationship with his mistress. In circumstances such as these, I would actually find it unethical if referrals to other professionals were not made. In this current federal appeal, I don’t believe the school’s actions were based on professional ethics – I believe they were based on religious beliefs that school officials don’t like. Hence, the student should win, and I hope she does.
[Update: I’ve since heard from the student’s attorney, who informed me that his client actually was assigned specifically to counsel one member of a gay couple and that her objection to doing so actually was broader than has been widely reported. The attorney clarified that the student’s objection was not to helping patients with homosexual orientations. He confirmed my supposition (see above) that the student gladly would have helped a gay man through a bout of depression. The attorney said that his client’s objection is to helping any patient, homosexual or heterosexual, to engage in sexual behavior outside of wedlock. In other words, as I understand it, her issue is not with people’s sexual attraction, whether it be to members of the same sex or the opposite sex; it’s with people’s sexual behavior, specifically, acting on sexual attraction to/with anyone of either sex outside of wedlock. He noted that her objection would’ve been the same if the patient had been an unmarried straight man whose goal was to improve a sexual relationship with a female partner. The attorney didn’t say whether his client would object to counseling a gay couple in a jurisdiction where the two were legally married. If her only moral objection is to pre-marital sex, then I would expect that she’d be comfortable counseling a married gay couple regardless of the presenting problem, but if she’d then have a secondary moral objection to anyone, unmarried or married, acting on homosexual attraction, then perhaps she’d be comfortable only so long as the presenting problem were non-sexual, e.g. inter-spousal communication. I don’t know, but I also don’t know how much difference it really makes.]
Workplace Shooting Rampage and the Potential Value of Risk Assessments
The psychological services that I provide are generally forensic and organizational assessment and consultation services, not therapeutic services, and sadly, Wednesday’s headlines illustrated why employers across the country may need to be utilizing more of one particular type of service that I provide, employee risk assessment. A disgruntled employee came to a California quarry with a gun on Wednesday, shot and killed three co-workers, wounded several others, fled the scene, shot and wounded another person in an apparent attempt to carjack a getaway vehicle, fled that scene, and remains on the loose at this hour. I can almost guarantee you we’ll learn that there were at least subtle signs prior to Wednesday that this guy was dangerous. From time to time, companies call on me for risk assessments of employees suspected of having the potential to become violent in their workplaces. Wednesday’s tragedy may turn out to be a prime example of a case in which that kind of assessment could have made a life-and-death difference.
Murray, Knox, K.C. Kidnapping, and Jobs
Now, before I go, brief updates: Speaking of professional ethics, the Conrad Murray case continues through its second week with more and more testimony about what looks more and more like a doctor who recklessly put all kinds of things less noble than religious or moral values (things like money and sex) ahead of a patient’s life. Amanda Knox is back on American soil. At least now Casey Anthony will have some competition for interview, book, and porn deals. And just up the road from me in Kansas City, a baffling baby-kidnapping case is unfolding. The ten-month-old disappeared from the parents’ home in the middle of the night after an apparent forced entry into the home via a window, no suspects and no reported leads yet. And finally, sentiments pouring in from around the world about the late Apple founder Steve Jobs are making me think today about how nice it would be for all of us if people (maybe not strangers all over the world, maybe just the people who know us personally) similarly said one day that the world (maybe not the whole world, maybe just our little corner of the world) was a better place because of us.