Kaminer on Freedom of Conscience in ‘The Atlantic’

By on March 12, 2010

Author, civil libertarian, and member of FIRE’s Board of Advisors Wendy Kaminer has an article on The Atlantic‘s website this week about attacks on freedom of conscience, particularly in the field of counseling and social work. Entitled "Gay Rights and Anti-Gay Liberties," Kaminer’s article discusses how the controversy over gay rights has had the unfortunate side effect in some cases of compromising the rights of those who believe, for instance, that homosexuality and same-sex marriage are immoral. For instance, she relates the disturbing story of Eastern Michigan University counseling student Julea Ward:

Julea Ward had nearly completed a graduate degree program in counseling at Eastern Michigan University (EMU) when she was dismissed for refusing to affirm homosexual behavior as morally acceptable and then refusing to enter a "remediation" program designed to demonstrate the "error of her ways."  It should be stressed that Ward was not asserting a prerogative to counsel gay clients in spite of her views; instead, she was relying on the option of referring them to other therapists, and she had done so in a clinical program.  Still, she was dismissed for violating EMU policies, which incorporated American Counseling Association ethical codes and included an obligation to "tolerate different points of view," as well as prohibitions on "unethical, threatening, or unprofessional conduct" or discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, (among other characteristics, including religious belief).  Ward has sued EMU in federal court (the case is pending, awaiting a ruling on cross motions to dismiss); she is represented by the Alliance Defense Fund, (and this summary of facts derives from the ADF brief).

The whole article is well worth a read. Kaminer also notes that while many civil liberties groups find it difficult to wholeheartedly support the right to speak of those with whom they disagree, FIRE is not one of them:

Of course the gay rights movement (like the feminist movement) includes internal disputes about the wisdom or justice of infringing on First Amendment rights. In Maine, for example, leaders of the campaign for equal marriage publicly opposed the complaint against Donald Mendell [a licensed high school guidance counselor in a Maine public school who appeared in a tv ad supporting the successful 2009 ballot initiative to repeal Maine's equal marriage law]. But, with the notable exception of the non-partisan Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which defends the rights of all students, regardless of their views, advocacy groups tend to focus on defending the liberties of people with whom they agree.

I have talked about this before, but I will say it again: for a civil liberties group to focus on defending the speech of those with whom it is most politically comfortable is a huge mistake. There are thousands of partisan or pseudo-partisan political groups out there. That is necessary and proper in a free society, and many of them do excellent work. But civil liberties groups that take sides on the political issues of the day are taking grave risks with their credibility. Someone has to serve as an honest broker. On campus, that job falls to FIREand we’re proud to do it.