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Eye on Ethics

Wrestling With Faith in Social Work Education
By Frederic G. Reamer, PhD
May 2013

I recently perused a website sponsored by a social work education program housed in a faith-based university. The website makes clear that the Bible, “which is regarded as the revealed Word of God and the final authority in all matters pertaining to life and faith, is exalted as the foundation of every curricular program.” Further, the website states that, according to university policy, “it is required that full-time faculty members adhere to these teachings and principles and seek to inculcate them into the lives of their students. Furthermore, each student is expected to attain the goals of Christian character and conduct which are implied in these teachings.”

Certainly, social work students and faculty members are free to embrace whatever religious tradition appeals to them or none at all. Freedom of religion is deeply rooted in America’s moral, political, and ideological fabric—there is no serious dispute about that. Indeed, many faith-based social work education programs, their faculty, and the students have made profound contributions to the profession and the commonweal.

But earnest commitment to religious teachings has the very real potential to collide with traditional social work values and ethical principles. Although the ethos of all major religions’ convictions correlate well with social work values and ethics in many respects—especially related to caring for people who are poor and vulnerable, treating people with dignity, and being truthful in our interpersonal relationships—other intersections are thorny.

No doubt every social work educator knows the very large elephant in the middle of this room: faith-related debate surrounding complex issues pertaining to sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and reproductive rights. Consider the following controversy.

According to a report aired by NPR in September 2012, the Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio faced questions about its social work accreditation because of a course description that considers homosexuality “deviant” and a “disorder.” According to the report, the university’s social work program offers the course “SWK 314: Deviant Behavior.” The course description reads as follows: “The behaviors that are primarily examined are murder, rape, robbery, prostitution, homosexuality, mental illness, and drug use.”

In a written statement to NPR, the school said, “Franciscan University follows Catholic Church teaching in regard to homosexuality and treats homosexual persons with ‘respect, compassion, and sensitivity’ (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 2358) while holding homosexual acts as ‘intrinsically disordered.’” Critics charge that this university’s policies violate the accreditation standards adopted by the Council on Social Work Education, which require adherence to the NASW Code of Ethics.

Religion Meets Social Work
Social work has deep and honorable religious roots. The profession grew out of 19th-century efforts, many of them church based, to address social problems associated with poverty, urbanization, and immigration. Many “friendly visitors” received church stipends to support direct relief, prayer, and evangelism offered to people struggling with life’s challenges. Throughout the profession’s history, there always have been deeply committed social workers guided by their sincere, earnest religious faith.

Complex challenges arise when strongly held principles of faith collide with social work values. In one case, a social work student was assigned to her state’s NASW chapter office for her field placement (internship). The student’s duties included providing staff support to a chapter-sponsored legislative affairs committee (tracking legislation supported or opposed by the chapter, monitoring legislators’ votes, organizing social action events, writing newsletter articles, preparing e-mail messages for members, writing fact sheets). The chapter’s NASW legislative initiatives were based on formal votes by the board of directors. NASW policy requires chapters to ensure that legislation they support is consistent with policy positions formally endorsed by NASW and the Code of Ethics.

The legislation supported by the NASW chapter board of directors included a marriage equality bill that would permit same-sex partners to marry. This posed an ethical dilemma for the student, whose university’s student handbook prohibits non-marital sexual relationships, including same-sex relationships:

The University expects students to refrain from sexual relations outside of marriage. Any activity that falls short of clear Biblical principles and/or good taste will receive disciplinary action. Inappropriate public displays of affection, single students dating married persons, married students dating anyone other than their spouses, homosexual activity and cohabitation with members of the opposite sex are examples of unacceptable behavior. Sexual immorality by any student that deviates from or goes beyond the one man, one woman relationship within the traditional bonds of marriage may result in expulsion or appropriate disciplinary action which conforms to the University’s expectations.

The student handbook also states that the university “does not discriminate on the basis of race, national or ethnic origin, sex, color, age, or handicap.” Significantly, the policy does not prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression.

The student’s ethical dilemma arose because her university’s policy conflicts with NASW’s formal position, adopted by its board of directors, supporting same-sex marriage. The university’s and NASW’s values in this arena clash irreconcilably. The NASW board’s position is anchored in explicit language in the Code of Ethics prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, or expression (standard 4.02): “The National Board of Directors of the National Association of Social Workers reaffirms the Association’s support for same-sex marriages, and strongly opposes any attempt to pass federal legislation or amend the United States Constitution to discriminate against same-sex couples or prohibit governmental recognition of these relationships.”

Resolving Conflicting Principles and Values
How can someone reconcile a bald conflict between a faith-based institution’s explicit condemnation of same-sex relationships, which are viewed as deviant and disordered, and NASW’s formal support of legislation supporting same-sex marriage and prohibition of discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression? The most difficult ethical challenges in social work entail conflicts among moral principles and values. Especially since the late 1970s, social workers have cultivated rich conceptual frameworks to help practitioners make difficult ethical choices and resolve daunting dilemmas. Typically these decision-making frameworks include explicit application of social work values and ethical standards, particularly the Code of Ethics.

Certainly, faith-based human-service practitioners who oppose NASW policies have the right to disagree with the organization’s position. Further, they have the right to challenge NASW policies using well-established procedures and organizational bylaws that permit dissent and provide avenues for members to pursue policy changes within the organization.

In the final analysis, however, individuals who choose to obtain social work degrees and call themselves social workers have a duty to uphold the profession’s core values. As the Code of Ethics states, “Social workers should uphold and advance the values, ethics, knowledge, and mission of the profession. Social workers should protect, enhance, and improve the integrity of the profession through appropriate study and research, active discussion, and responsible criticism of the profession” (standard 5.01[b]).

Social workers who are people of faith do much to support those in need, and for this we should be deeply grateful. But if their actions and pronouncements violate the profession’s core values, they are not practicing social work as the profession has chosen to define it—and that is unethical.

— Frederic G. Reamer, PhD, is a professor in the graduate program of the School of Social Work, Rhode Island College. He is the author of many books and articles, and his research has addressed mental health, health care, criminal justice, and professional ethics.