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Graduate students against "Julea Ward Freedom of Conscience Act"

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To: Michigan Legislators

Re: Michigan House Bill 5040

We are writing this letter to explain our position on HB5040 as graduate students in applied psychology fields in Michigan. Each of us is training in graduate programs that are preparing us for a license to practice psychology in Michigan and will also prepare us to be competitive in the broader U.S. market upon completion of training. As graduate students, we believe we have a unique perspective that may be helpful to considering the implications of such a bill.

A major concern about the HB5040 is the potential to harm our graduate degree-granting institutions’ credibility and accreditation. Because the bill is in conflict with the ethical principles of psychologists and the standards for accreditation in our field, passage of this bill could have far reaching consequences for our programs and for our ability to gain licensure and certification. If the bill were to compromise accreditation status of Michigan programs, and we were to lose accreditation by the American Psychological Association, we would be unable to enter certain career subfields (e.g., the Veteran’s Administration), we could have difficult billing insurance companies some of whom require accreditation, and would be ad a disadvantage in the competitive job market. Notably, we would also be unable to obtain a license as a psychologist in Michigan. We are working long and hard to position ourselves well for successful careers, and this bill threatens the integrity of our training and threatens our investments and efforts.

As aspiring ethical professionals, we certainly do not condone discrimination, including religious discrimination. We believe this misunderstanding is at the heart of the problem of HB5040. As students, we need a variety of clinical experiences to gain competence in working with many different kinds of people. It is common that we experience a conflict between our personal religious or moral beliefs and our clients’ lifestyles. For example, common conflicts come from circumstances like counseling women who are having abortions or who are having children outside of marriage, providing psychotherapy to those who have committed egregious crimes, helping those with substance abuse problems who are not prepared to recover, assisting a couple in a divorce, counseling a person with a sexual fetish, providing therapy for a cancer patient who refuses Western medicine in favor of homeopathy, serving migrant workers, providing psychotherapy to a male who prefers to dress and present to the world as a woman, or helping a client use their religious faith to cope when our faith is at odds with theirs. When our primary work is helping to improve the health of people by involving ourselves in the most personal parts of their lives, including their behavior, thoughts, feelings, and life experiences, we will certainly encounter conflicts.

Just like students in medical school and veterinary school must work on cadavers or live tissue and pharmacists must learn about contraceptive medication, even if it goes against their conscience, we need to encounter these conflicts in our educational settings where we have support, expert guidance, and the safety net of our programs. It is important to us to know that advanced psychology training does not target any particular religious or moral belief system. Instead, we all encounter conflicts in our training and treat these conflicts as opportunities to gain competence to practice ethically and, in the near future, independently. Once we are licensed, we have the responsibility to discern when we should accept a client in our practice and when we should refer them to another provider. While in training, we rely on our professors and supervisors to help guide us to ethically resolve these conflicts. Once we graduate and obtain licensure, this support is no longer a guarantee in our practice. As psychology students, we know the importance of preparation and practice. To undermine this process of learning in our educational and training settings would rob us of the ability to manage such conflicts responsibly as independent practitioners in the future.

We recognize that this bill is named for a fellow student, Julea Ward, who refused to counsel a gay person. Although you might expect that students will only refuse to learn to be competent in helping gay people, we know that the implications of this bill would reach much farther. Students have ill feelings and moral beliefs about a wide variety of human characteristics, and we believe that the decision to become a helping professional means learning to navigate these difficult conflicts. This is true whether or not we agree with the clients’ sexuality, gender presentation, political affiliation, race or color, marital status, and many more characteristics. Allowing students to refuse to gain competence in working with individuals who make them uncomfortable or who do not match the students’ morality would be harmful to those in our communities who already experience prejudice and discrimination. Indeed, students have the choice about whether or not to become a psychologist and can instead choose to be religious counselors or advisers, for example. In contrast, our clients do not always have other viable alternatives to seek professional help.

This bill does not protect students from religious discrimination – it clearly allows unprepared students to make decisions they are not qualified to make independently, and the bill would actually encourage discrimination against clients. It is our professional ethics that guide us to work against such unfair treatment of our community members, and, rather than shielding us from something harmful, we believe this bill exemplifies such discrimination.

We hope that addressing some of these issues from the student perspective might clarify some controversial issues embedded in HB5040. The bill would not help graduate students in our field, but it would put our careers and competence at risk and encourage discrimination. We urge you to prevent HB5040 from becoming law.

Thank you for your consideration.


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