On “Sincerely Held Religious Beliefs” and Being a Counselor


Via JT, here’s a new bill that recently passed in the Tennessee State Senate Education Committee by a 7-2 vote:

Republican state Sen. Joey Hensley encouraged fellow senators to pass SB 514 to “prevent an institution of high education from discriminating against a student in the counseling, social worker, psychology programs because of their religious beliefs.”

Hensley’s bill would protect any student who “refuses to counsel or serve a client as to goals, outcomes, or behaviors that conflict with a sincerely held religious belief.”

Here’s another relevant quote:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…

I don’t have to cite this one, right?

Forcing public universities to allow their graduate students to use their religion to avoid doing what they’re supposed to do is absolutely “respecting an establishment of religion.” And, contrary to the apparent opinions of the seven senators who voted yes, allowing public universities to require their graduate students to do what they’re supposed to do does not constitute “prohibiting the free exercise” of religion unless you view your counseling work as a form of religious worship. Hopefully, nobody does.

All of this relates to the larger problem of people believing that the First Amendment gives them the right to do a crappy job at work without being fired. When you’re choosing a career path, you should consider, among other things, whether or not you are willing to do the things that your chosen job requires. For instance, I started out college planning to be a journalist, but I realized that pestering people (especially survivors of traumatic newsworthy events) for interviews went against my personal ethical code. Rather than expecting the profession of journalism to adjust itself to my ethical code, I found a different field.

If you are unwilling to help people simply because of who they love, don’t become a counselor.

If you are unwilling to drive a bus simply because it has an ad about atheism, don’t become a bus driver.

If you are unwilling to give someone their prescribed medication simply because it will prevent them from getting pregnant, don’t become a pharmacist.

If you are unwilling to perform an elective surgery on someone simply because it will change their assigned sex, don’t become a plastic surgeon.

If you are unwilling to teach actual science simply because it includes evolution, don’t become a science teacher.

When I was applying to my social work program, I read through the list of requirements for acceptance. I needed a B.A. from an accredited college/university, at least 60 credits in the liberal arts, a decent GPA, and so on. There was also a list of attributes that social work students should have: empathy, interpersonal skills, and a bunch of others. On the list was also this:

The social work student must appreciate the value of human diversity. He/she must serve in an appropriate manner all persons in need of assistance, regardless of the person’s age, class, race, ethnicity, religious affiliation (or lack thereof), gender, ability, sexual orientation and value system.

There you have it. It’s a requirement. If I’m unwilling to do it, I shouldn’t go into the field.

Of course, with counseling things can get a bit tricky. If a counselor realizes that their personal bias may prevent them from working appropriately with a given client, it is their responsibility to refer the client to another counselor. Not to just say, “Sorry, can’t help you,” but to try to ensure that they get the help they need somewhere else.

Furthermore, counselors should not attempt to practice outside of their expertise, so if a client shows up with problems that you have no idea how to work with, you should also refer them to someone else. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you should refer out every LGBT client who comes your way, of course, but if they’re struggling with issues like coming out, dealing with homophobia, or trying to have children, and you have no experience counseling LGBT individuals facing such issues, this is probably not the client for you and you are probably not the counselor for this client.

But there’s a fine line between being unable and being unwilling to do something. There’s a difference between lacking the training or experience you’d need to work with someone and simply not wanting to work with them because you disapprove of their “lifestyle.” There are plenty of “lifestyles” of which I suppose I “disapprove,” but all that really means is that I wouldn’t want to do the same thing and don’t necessarily understand why someone would. That doesn’t mean I can’t still affirm that person as a human being worthy of sympathy and help.

I don’t know how it is everywhere else, but in the programs I’ve looked at, graduate psychology students who are interning tend to work with clients on a sliding scale, which means that these interns are often the only type of counselor that some people can afford. The silver lining of a bill like this is that these clients, who may already be disadvantaged, will be spared from homophobic counselors.

However, the bill’s language does not suggest that it was written to protect LGBT clients, but rather homophobic counselors. And crucially, the bill contradicted advice from psychologists, social workers, and those who oversee graduate psychology programs. They noted that programs could lose accreditation, that part of the job of a counselor is to put their “sincerely held religious beliefs” aside when they do their work. But no, the Religious Right won out again.

Quotes from some Tennessee senators are very telling:

Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, couldn’t understand why psychology departments aren’t teaching their students how to pray away the gay with homosexual clients.

“So if someone were to, say, come in and—I’m just going to throw an example out there—say they were a homosexual and a person did not believe that was a natural act and they suggested, say, change therapy?” Campfield asked. “Would that be something you could allow a student to do?”

Sen. Rusty Crowe, R-Johnson City, said, “I would think that you should be up front and truthful and tell them if they are doing wrong and try to counsel them to do what’s right. That really disturbs me.”

I have sympathy for people whose sincerely held beliefs, religious or otherwise, make it difficult for them to do what they need to do. As I said, I’ve been in that boat. And a certain amount of accommodations for religious people at work and school is, I believe, reasonable. It’s not a huge deal for professors and employers to allow people to occasionally miss a day for a religious holiday or to wear religious garments. It is a big deal for them to exempt students and employees from a crucial part of their training or job.

Allowing people to freely observe their religion does not necessitate bending over backwards to allow them to keep doing jobs with which their religion clashes. Sometimes you just gotta get another job.

Besides, such counselors are free to go practice at any of the many religiously-affiliated counseling centers that exist in this country, which is a topic for another post.

Comments

  1. smrnda says

    There are lots of programs at often unaccredited Christian colleges in the states in programs like ‘Biblical Counseling’ or ‘Christian Counseling.’ If you’re religious beliefs are such that you can’t deal with people who don’t share your beliefs, that option is available, like you said, and they should take it.

    There’s also a difference between a job, career and a profession. I look at a job as something that you kind of get stuck with – in those situations, I kind of side with the person who might have a conflict between their ethics and the job. However, you have to put in a lot of effort to get into a profession – you just don’t end up a counselor because Counselors R Us had a ‘help wanted’ sign on the door, it’s a big decision. If you can’t stand the sight of blood you shouldn’t become a surgeon or phlebotomist. If you are a pacifist, don’t join the military (I’m assuming volunteer army there.)

    I like that some counselors advertize that they are GLBT friendly, and I can understand a counselor not having much knowledge on an area and wanting to pass someone onto a specialist – this happens with things like eating disorders or substance abuse, but all in all, clients need to get pretty judgment free counseling.

    I wonder how these people would feel if atheist counselors told people that they’ll never be well unless they stop believing in religion.

    • says

      There’s also a difference between a job, career and a profession. I look at a job as something that you kind of get stuck with – in those situations, I kind of side with the person who might have a conflict between their ethics and the job. However, you have to put in a lot of effort to get into a profession – you just don’t end up a counselor because Counselors R Us had a ‘help wanted’ sign on the door, it’s a big decision.

      Yeah, this is an important distinction. A job can have particulars to it that are NOT inherent to the profession as a whole–in fact, they may even be contrary to the profession as a whole. But anyone who’s done even the slightest bit of research about professions knows that counselors may at times work with LGBT people and doctors may at times prescribe birth control and bus drivers may at times drive buses with ads on them that you don’t necessarily agree with.

      I wonder how these people would feel if atheist counselors told people that they’ll never be well unless they stop believing in religion.

      A good question indeed! Personally, as a future atheist counselor, it’s none of my business/concern if I get a client who happens to be religious. If the client turns out to be having issues that are very specific to the fact that they’re religious, I might refer them out because that’s not going to be something I focus on, and that’s probably best left to a counselor who shares that religion or has training/experience working with it. After all, for example, if someone tells me that they’re feeling terribly guilty because they’re having premarital sex and their religion says that’s wrong, I don’t really see what else to do but encourage the client to reexamine their adherence to that religion, but that will probably be unhelpful. My lack of experience in this regard means that I’m not the best counselor for that client. It has nothing to do with my approval or lack thereof of their lifestyle.

      • Robert Arnow, Freeze Peach Inspector says

        Something that I find helpful in talking through guilt about extramarital sex is to try and put it in the context of what’s actually going to happen as a result, and how the person feels about sex. Getting somebody to talk through a logical argument for their beliefs (even if you don’t agree on the precepts for the argument) can help avoid the overwhelming and inescapable sense of guilt. Two caveats: neither of the people I’ve talked to about this guilt ended up changing their minds much, and both were very liberal in their religious beliefs. I don’t know how far you could get actually helping a religious client get over hir guilt, especially if they’re making scripturally supported claims about how “I am a bad person and should feel bad”.

  2. Leum says

    I’m inclined to be okay with this law, as I wouldn’t want a homophobic counselor treating me. The proper solution to this issue is to make homophobia grounds for being denied license or revocation of license.

    • says

      The proper solution to this issue is to make homophobia grounds for being denied license or revocation of license.

      That’s exactly what this law is preventing, though. Since it’s targeted at universities, it’s saying that you can’t prevent a graduate student from getting their degree just because they refuse to treat LGBT clients. Although graduate degrees and licenses are separate, why would you allow someone to get their degree only to bar from from licensure right afterward?

  3. says

    I really liked your nice collection of “people attempting to use the First Amendment to unjustly gain religious privilege”. I hear of these attempts over and over in different fields! But the more I do, the more quickly I’m able to parse out and articulate just why it’s not acceptable, and why it’s quite the opposite of the intention of the amendment. Because it is tricky.

    It’s always easy for me to jump to some ridiculous fictional belief that I could label as religious and get by with this bill’s logic. Like if I wanted to be a therapist but had a “sincerely held religious belief” that my deities wanted troubled people to suffer without aid, we can all see how troublesome this bill is. It’s not the government’s job to give a religious exception when otherwise that belief, sans gods, would completely prevent me from participating in that field.

    • says

      It’s always easy for me to jump to some ridiculous fictional belief that I could label as religious and get by with this bill’s logic.

      This argument exposes the ridiculousness (not to mention unconstitutionality) of these laws, because the truth is that this would probably never fly. They would tell you that your religion has to be “official” or “recognized” or something, and since your example is not part of any organized religion I can think of, you would be told that it’s not legitimate grounds for religious exemption. And that leads right to the fact that this is not about protecting all religious expression; this is about protecting religious expression for certain religions that have been deemed legitimate, thus violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

      • says

        Bingo. If you open the door to “religious” beliefs being special, you either open it up to everything (impossible) or start deeming some religions acceptable and some not. Which starts to get a little more direct about violating the establishment clause!

  4. says

    I find the whole idea of “I will practice my religion rather than do my job” amusing, in a sick way.

    Imagine, if you will, that Sen. Hensley is in a car accident. The EMTs arrive, and they are a pair of Christian Scientists, who insist on their religious right to pray away the broken bones and punctured organs. He get’s to the hospital in desperate need of a transfusion because of blood loss, but the Jehovah’s Witness ER doctor refuses to authorize the procedure because transfusions are forbidden by JW doctrine. And the pharmacist on duty follows the teachings of Mother Theresa and tells him that she will not prescribe drugs for the pain because her beliefs advise her that suffering should be offered to Jesus and not relieved. He survives the ordeal but is terribly traumatized. He is referred to a psychotherapist who is a devout Scientologist and who insists that he needs auditing, not therapy.

    I really hope he — or anyone else — has to go through what he is insisting on.

  5. says

    Good post!

    I live right on the border of Missouri and Kansas, and the Missouri Legislature is considering a bill that has to do with this issue. It’s a ridiculously broad “conscience clause” for health-care workers, that would enable them to refuse to provide abortion, contraception, sterilization, or assisted-reproduction services, or to participate in research involving embryonic stem cells. They would also not be obligated to refer you to another practitioner who *would* help you get whichever of those things you needed.

    I don’t live in Missouri, but I do live in Kansas, which is more conservative if anything. Whenever any state passes legislation like this, I feel less safe, and less like I have control over my own reproductive destiny.

    (I want to get sterilized as soon as I have an income and insurance, so I can pay for it. Hopefully elective sterilization will not be illegal by that time.)

    Have I mentioned how depressing this stuff is?

  6. says

    I wonder how long it’ll be before we get a pilot who insists that it’s against hir religious belief to fly a plane, but that should’t be grounds for dismissal.

    More plausibly, I can imagine a Jehovah’s witness who trained as a surgeon and then refused to give transfusions to people who were bleeding to death. Does ze still have the right to work in the emergency room?

    • says

      More plausibly, I can imagine a Jehovah’s witness who trained as a surgeon and then refused to give transfusions to people who were bleeding to death. Does ze still have the right to work in the emergency room?

      Actually, from what I understand, the JW objection to blood transfusions is simply that they think they’ll go to hell for it, not that it’s intrinsically wrong for other people. But sometimes religions do get radicalized and try to apply their rules to others, such as the Muslim prohibition of visually representing Mohammed.

  7. deoridhe says

    Speaking as a trained therapist, part of my job is to be able to set asside most of my beliefs and worldview and engage with where my clients are coming from – and that includes being educated about the role of things in their lives even if I disagree with those things. I’m lucky; I’m a bleeding heart progressive who is very social justice and equity focused, so this is pretty easy, but I have – for example – supported clients in engaging in religious activities which improve their mental health and ability to focus and accomplish things even when it wasn’t my own religion. The hardest times I have is when my clients are racist, sexist, and homophobic! But then I have the ideals of my profession and workplace to fall back on, which is that we support all people regardless of the person’s age, class, race, ethnicity, religious affiliation (or lack thereof#, gender, ability, sexual orientation and value system, and so slurs are inappropriate and we’ll ask the client to not use them. That renders this stance not as a personal choice #even though it also is) but as a professional standard.

    • says

      The hardest times I have is when my clients are racist, sexist, and homophobic!

      Yeah, I fully expect this to be the case for me. :)

      But also, despite what one might think from reading this blog (which is only one small facet of who I am as a person), I’m very much capable of working closely with such people and understanding where they’re coming from. To paraphrase a common -ist excuse, some of the people I’m closest to are racist/sexist/homophobic! You learn to understand them pretty well and to be able to affirm them as people while internally rejecting some of their grounding beliefs.

  8. lochaber says

    what the hell…

    Seriously, any time I hear about some case where, say (just as a hypothetical example), a Muslim woman requests an exemption to a dress code to wear her head covering, these wingnuts just completely loose their shit, and start spouting off about sharia law, and how she should work someplace where it’s already allowed.

    I consider myself a devout follower of Morpheus, and my sect’s teachings consider it a sin to do any work whilst awake. It’s violating my constitutional rights to fire me for (repeatedly) sleeping at work.

    Fuck these privileged fascist asshats

  9. Ariel says

    I know very little about American regulations concerning counseling; my experience is from a different country and only from a point of view of a patient. I don’t have strong opinions on this topic; I’m also not sure at all whether I have the details right. So just some questions to you.

    1. The bill you are discussing concerns the students, not the professional counselors – is that correct? When you study to become a counselor, you may be asked to participate in some actual counseling and the bill is supposed to regulate what happens in such situations – right?
    2. You probably have some separate regulations for professional counselors (not students anymore). What are they like?
    3. Miri said that “such counselors [i.e. religious ones] are free to go practice at any of the many religiously-affiliated counseling centers that exist in this country”. Does the practice at such centers require finishing studies? If so, is it possible for a religious student to choose a university (perhaps religiously affiliated) which would permit him to avoid doing things against his/her religion?

    My motivation for the third question: as a participant of some discussion sites about depression, I noticed a strong tendency of religious people to choose a counselor sharing their religion. I think that in a country with a substantial number of religious inhabitants, such (religious) counselors are needed indeed. If we don’t have them, many people in a dire need of counseling would have no one to turn to: the lack of religious counselors would discourage them from looking for any help, and they would be in fact – if not in theory – left on their own. So the issue is not just about an individual choice of career; it’s about possibilities offered to patients (LGBT of course, but not only them). In general that’s the problem with the advice “You don’t want it – find another profession”. It seems to me that regulations shouldn’t be that strict as to bar (practically) religious students from completing the studies. Otherwise the religious people with mental problems would pay for it dearly.

    I’m not sure what the solution should be. Perhaps a possibility of choosing a religiously affiliated university, with different sort of regulations? That’s why I asked the third question. Does it work like that in the US?

  10. says

    The larger issue in my opinion is allowing people to graduate from such a program when they can’t agree to the minimum qualifications one would expect to even join the program. If a student can’t set aside their religious beliefs for long enough to practice counseling someone they disagree with then why on earth would we let them graduate to concealing people in private where they might cause serious damage by bringing their personal religious issues into the session rather than make a kind, non-judgmental, and helpful referral to a better qualified counselor.

    I have an absolute right to a serious religious conviction that drinking a sin and condemned by god. I have a right to vote on that issue when local licenses are up for renewal, to shop at supermarkets that do not carry liquor.

    I do NOT have a right to apply for a job as a bartender, then refuse to serve alcohol, and demand to not be fired, and be fully paid for serving only juice. And being a counselor or psychologist is a frak ton more important, and sensitive, than being a bartender.

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