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In most discussions, HB 5040 is framed as a bill that means students studying to work in a mental health profession can refuse to treat a patient or client who is gay because homosexuality goes against their religious beliefs. But there are much broader implications than the briefly worded bill explains.
HB 5040 came about because an Eastern Michigan University student, Julea Ward, did not want to have to provide counseling to a gay student. She was removed from the program and a court agreed the university was right to do so. Republicans in the state legislature disagreed with the court decision and introduced HB 5040 to assert the right to religious exemption and the right to financial recourse against any institution that “shall not discipline or discriminate against a student in a counseling, social work or psychology program because the student refuses to counsel or serve a client as to goals, outcomes, or behaviors that conflict with a sincerely held religious belief.”
The “Julia Ward Freedom of Conscience” bill (HB 5040) was passed by the Michigan House of Representatives on June 12, by a vote of 59 to 50 and then referred it to the Government Committee of the Senate.
Judith Kovach, Ph.D., L.P., project director of Michigan Project for Informed Public Policy cautions legislators that more is at stake than just the rights of gay youth to receive counseling.
“Although Julea Ward refused to counsel a gay student as part of her practicum training, this bill applies to more diverse populations than those who are LGBT or who are questioning their sexual orientation or gender identity or expression. For example, it could also apply to students who, in violation of existing educational requirements and professional codes of ethics, refuse to treat LGBT people as well as people of other faiths, people of color, divorced people, anyone who had an abortion, etc.,” Kovach said.
“All of Michigan’s health care professions require that licensed practitioners do no harm. Because this bill has the potential to harm patients, it is important not only to those in the licensed mental health professions, but also to those who may be in their care. Let me explain. A licensed professional who has religious beliefs that are in conflict with something about the patient recognizes this early on because of his or her training, and may make a referral. To shortcut this part of their training – as this bill proposes – could mean (1) that they may not necessarily realize their own biases as they become licensed professionals, and (2) the lack of such recognition can have profound effects on their patients. In other words, they may harm patients without realizing it or intending to do so.”
Unworkable for Universities
Michael Boulus, executive director of the President’s Council, an organization of Michigan’s public universities, addressed this issue in his remarks on the bill. He emphasized, “HB 5040 defies the standards of the Michigan Bureau of Health Professions and Department of Education, is inconsistent with the Elliott Larsen Civil Rights Act, and jeopardizes the accreditation – and thus the academic excellence – of every public and private college and university in the State of Michigan.” He concluded that the proposed bill would give students a blanket opt-out to refuse to complete an academic requirement and was “simply unworkable.”
“The bottom line,” Kovach said, “Is this proposed legislation, if adopted by the Michigan Senate and signed by the Governor, could have the following consequences:
“Michigan would redefine itself as allowing mental health professionals in training to assert self-interest above public interest to the detriment of patients. Or, as nationally prominent psychologist Glenda Russell put it, “At this level, we are not talking about anything having to do with someone’s conscience. We are talking about a blatant campaign to reassert stigma.”
“By legislating a core principle of training that has been defined by educators and professionals, students may be able to disregard their academic requirements. The intrusion of the legislature into the academic freedom of the state’s public community colleges, colleges, and universities could have consequences that legislators may not understand or fully appreciate.
“Future mental health professionals in Michigan could be unprepared for the diverse world that awaits – and needs – them.”
Jay Kaplan of the ACLU also decries the legislation. “With increasing frequency, we are seeing individuals and institutions attempting to claim a right to refuse to provide services or care based on religious objections. Look at the attempt by the Michigan legislature last year to put in a religious and moral exemption into the proposed anti-bullying legislation.
“Last week HB 5763 was introduced that would permit child placement agencies (that have contracts with the State of Michigan) to refuse to place children in placements that violates the agency’s religious beliefs.
“HB 5763 says that the Department of Social Services cannot take into account a placement agency’s refusal to place, in deciding whether or not to award contracts from the State.
“Religious refusals can take many forms and the real-life impact can be devastating. Hospitals could refuse to perform medically necessary abortions for pregnant women in life-threatening situations. That means that the hospital could leave a pregnant woman to die in the emergency room because of the religious beliefs of the hospital owners. A landlord could refuse to rent to a family, simply because the family is Muslim. A public school guidance counselor could refuse, because of his religious beliefs, to counsel a gay high school student, denying care to a teen that may have nowhere to go. Pharmacies could refuse to fill a woman’s prescription for birth control because of religious objections, placing a particular burden on women in rural areas who may have to drive long distances just to reach another pharmacy.”
Kaplan noted that instances of institutions and individuals claiming a right to discriminate in the name of religion are nothing new. “However, we are embarking on a dangerous slippery slope as our legislature attempts to carve out exceptions to non-discrimination policies and laws. We have a right to our religious beliefs, but that does not give us the right to use our religion to discriminate and impose those beliefs on others who do not share them.”
Last October when a cadre of 34 Republican representatives introduced the bill, Walter Kraft, EMU’s VP for Communications commented on the situation Michiganders faced. He explained that EMU’s dismissal of Ward was not about LGBT issues or religion, but was about what is in the best interest of a client who is in need of counseling. He said it is about following the Code of Ethics of the American Counseling Association and the Ethical Standards of the American School Counselor Association, standards that dictate that counselors are not to allow their personal values to intrude into their professional work.
“As one of the premiere teacher-training institutions in the U.S., Eastern Michigan University takes seriously our Constitutional mission to ensure that every student who graduates from our academic programs meets applicable curricular and regulatory requirements. We will continue to pursue and defend this mission at every opportunity,” said Kraft.
Follow the progress of HB 5040 and others on the State Legislature website http://www.legislature.mi.gov/%28S%28akxkwt55flrrol55czfvwkuf%29%29/mileg.aspx?page=getobject&objectname=2011-HB-5040.