Rules Are for Schmucks: Paid to Discriminate

Short of cash? Here’s a quick way to earn $25,000 bucks, with no heavy lifting required. In fact, no effort at all is required—just the opposite. What you need to do is refuse to work and say it’s because of your religion, and the State of Missouri (which must be very, very rich) will write you a nice fat check.

Andrew Cash, age forty-six, enrolled in a Missouri State University master’s program in 2007, seeking a degree to allow him to become a professional counselor. Part of the program involved working at least six hundred hours in a clinical internship program, under close supervision. Four years into the program, he mentioned a problem to one of his professors: his Christian religion forbade him from providing counseling services to same-sex couples.

The problem was not a small one. The Code of Ethics of the American Counseling Association (ACA) has a provision directly on point:

C.5. Nondiscrimination.

Counselors do not condone or engage in discrimination against prospective or current clients, students, employees, supervisees, or research participants based on age, culture, disability, ethnicity, race, religion/spirituality, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, marital/ partnership status, language preference, socioeconomic status, immigration status, or any basis proscribed by law.

The university hemmed and hawed for a while, but ultimately decided that its mission was to produce ethical counselors, not unethical ones. They informed Cash that if he remained in the program, he would have to comply with the ACA Code of Ethics‑all of it, not just the parts he liked. So he left.

But this being the age of religious privilege litigation gone mad, Cash quickly found a well-funded right-wing legal outfit to bring a lawsuit on his behalf, complaining that he was “targeted and punished for expressing his Christian worldview.” Which is nonsense‑he could express whatever worldview he wanted, so long as he agreed to follow the rules of the profession he freely chose to enter.

Nevertheless, the university was apparently terrified by his demand for exorbitant punitive damages, and just agreed to a settlement in which the ex-student walked away with a check for $25,000. Nice non-work, if you can get it.

I’ve never sought the services of a professional counselor. I probably could have benefitted from doing so during a rough patch back in college, but I couldn’t get my act together enough at the time to try one. Had I done so, here is what I would not like to have been told: “I don’t like your kind, son. Get out. You’re unworthy of my assistance.”

That might have messed me up even further, no? And the issues I was having at the time pale in comparison to those experienced by gay people living in a straight-dominated world. As one thirteen-year-old who was struggling with the realization of his same-sex attraction put it, “I would have felt defeated, and I would have probably actually killed myself.” That’s what the ACA Code of Ethics is all about: assuring that people in a fragile emotional condition aren’t further damaged rather than relieved by their choice to seek assistance.

Meanwhile, politicians in neighboring Tennessee took note of this case and acted decisively. Not, as you might have hoped, to protect the potential customers of counselors, but to trash the whole concept that counselors should treat their customers in a detached, professional manner. Over the vehement objections of the ACA, Tennessee has now become the first state in the nation to explicitly allow counselors to refuse to treat patients based on the counselors’ own belief systems. Numerous proposed amendments to the bill were rejected before it passed, including one that would have required therapists to treat children who are victims of bullying. Forget it, said the God lobby—if Christian counselors want to reinforce bullying, they have every religious right to do so. As passed, the law would even allow a therapist opposed to a particular US military policy to refuse to treat a veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder.

On a roll, the Tennessee legislature is now considering a new bill to go even further—to throw out the ACA Code of Ethics altogether and replace it with a new one that would be written by God-fearing evangelical politicians in Tennessee. In the age of Trump, who knows what such a code might require? After all, why should counselors be ethically allowed to provide aid and comfort to non-Christians who just might turn out to be terrorists?

What’s next? Doctors? Lawyers? Quite possibly, yes. According to State Senator Jack Johnson, the sponsor of last year’s successful bill and this year’s pending one, “My bill doesn’t address anything except for counselors, but I think it may end up being a part of a longer conversation about what’s the best way to have the best code of ethics for professionals in Tennessee.” Some of us think the best ethical practice for any professional, anywhere, is to serve his or her clients without regard to religious bias.