Trish Cameron, fifth grade teacher in Moorhead, Minnesota, is out of job. She was fired from the Catholic School where she worked because of her views on same-sex marriage. She had the audacity to admit that she supports the right for two consenting adults, regardless of gender, to get married. She has no recourse to regain her teaching position, because in this country, private organizations have the right to specify the terms of employment for their employers. Or at least they do if they are religious. The same right is being challenged by Michigan legislators for other private organizations who historically have had freedom to control the terms of membership in their professions.
It has always been understood that professions have the right to determine their own professional ethics. Whether it’s law, medicine, social work, counseling, nursing, or any number of other professions, each of the major professional organizations that represent lawyers, doctors, social workers, etc. have created their own Code of Ethics. Based on these Codes of Ethics, the various professions have had the right to police their membership. If an individual violates established ethics, he or she can be sanctioned, and if the offense is egregious enough or there is an ongoing pattern of bad behavior, the individual can be permanently banned from practicing in the profession. For social workers, the National Association of Social Workers is responsible for regulating their Code of Ethics. Each time the NASW News arrives in my mail, I notice there is a section dedicated to publicly listing the names of sanctioned social workers. This practice of broadcasting the names of offenders is meant to warn off potential employers and alert licensing boards in states the offender might consider moving to.
Several of the specific ethical codes in not only social work, but many counseling and medical professions are directly related to treatment of gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered individuals. For example, clients have the right to self-determination, meaning that they have the right to live their lives in the way they see fit, and their providers are bound by ethics to honor this right. As another example, clients have the right to be treated with dignity and respect without facing any discrimination from their provider, including discrimination based on sexual orientation. These “rules” have riled up religious fundamentalists and homophobes for years as they refused to treat GLBT clients, treated these clients disrespectfully, or engaged in harmful forms of practice with them.
Recently, legislators in the state of Michigan decided they had the power to dictate to private organizations of professionals how they should maintain the integrity of their membership. Usurping the free agency of these organizations to dictate the terms of their membership, Michigan legislators passed the Julea Ward Freedom of Conscience Act, which says that professional schools cannot ask students to leave if they openly show discriminatory behavior based on a “sincerely held religious belief.” (Professional organizations are also responsible for accrediting colleges and universities that prepare future professionals, and part of this accreditation process is gaining assurances from the educational institution that it will abide by their Code of Ethics). The Act was based on the case of Julea Ward who was asked to leave her graduate program in counseling at Eastern Michigan University after she refused to treat a suicidal gay client. Michigan lawmakers decided this was the right way to go after Ms. Ward lost a lawsuit she filed in court regarding her dismissal. Initially, the courts rightly found that she failed to comply with the major tenets of her profession, thereby making her ineligible to continue in her program, but an appeals court reversed this decision and sent the case back to district court for another hearing.
Aside from Julea Ward, there is also the case of Jennifer Keeton, who sued Georgia’s Augusta State University, because she was also dismissed from her graduate counseling program for anti-gay behavior and refusal to participate in a remediation process for her unethical actions. In her case, according to Steve Williams, she kept “repeatedly referencing in class, out of class and in written essays, her personal belief that gay and lesbian people choose their sexual orientation, that it is an unhealthy lifestyle choice, and that homosexuality is due to some kind of gender confusion and a lack gender binary roles. When prompted, Keeton had also affirmed that she would not tell a gay student their sexual orientation was normal or healthy, despite this being the medical consensus, but would instead tell them they could choose to change.” These behaviors specifically violate the Code of Ethics for counseling professionals. Ms. Keeton’s lawsuit against Augusta State University was unsuccessful at the district court level, then the appeals court level, and then finally, a week and a half ago, a federal court ruled against her as well. The findings in the judge’s ruling are quite telling:
“The counselor program’s charge is to train and prepare students to become licensed professional counselors, and to this end ASU faculty and officials have incorporated into the program professional codes of conduct applicable to practicing counselors. Indeed, adoption of the professional codes and the concomitant remediation mechanism were measures animated in large part by the desire to obtain and maintain the counselor program’s professional accreditation — an important designation that assures students, employers, and the public that its curriculum meets professional standards. The legitimate sweep of the program’s policies therefore cannot be doubted.”
He further stated:
“Keeton’s conflation of personal and professional values, or at least her difficulty in discerning the difference, appears to have been rooted in her opinion that the immorality of homosexual relations is a matter of objective and absolute moral truth,” the judge wrote. “The policies which govern the ethical conduct of counselors, however, with their focus on client welfare and self-determination, make clear that the counselor’s professional environs are not intended to be a crucible for counselors to test metaphysical or moral propositions. Plato’s Academy or a seminary the counselor program is not; that Keeton’s opinions were couched in absolute or ontological terms does not give her constitutional license to make it otherwise.”
It remains to be seen how the courts will finally rule in Julea Ward’s case, but the federal court’s findings in the Keeton case may help bolster the district court’s original ruling against her. However, the disturbing issue is that Michigan’s lawmakers have decided the government should usurp the power of private professional organizations to decide their own ethical standards. It’s easy to envision that conservatives in other states may try to follow suit. In this country, if Trish Cameron can lose her job for merely supporting same-sex marriage, there should be no issue with professionals having the freedom to decide their own ethics as well.