PASADENA, Calif.—Linda Wagener, associate dean of Fuller Theological Seminary, was worried that her students wouldn't be able to find jobs. Not because of a tight market, but because their degrees in psychology came from a religious school.

Wagener said that the recent call to eliminate Footnote Four from the American Psychological Association's regulations would “have a devastating impact” on her students.

The footnote exempts religious schools from the association's anti-discrimination rules, including a bar on discrimination based on sexual orientation. Without the footnote, religious schools could lose their accreditation if they refused to hire actively homosexual faculty.

Many accrediting agencies in other fields, such as the American Bar Association, have a similar exemption for religious schools.

The association's committee on accreditation has proposed eliminating the footnote, and will be hearing comments on the proposal until Sept. 1. After that, the committee may seek legal advice, and then it will make a recommendation to the association's council of representatives, which has the final say. The council will vote on the footnote in either February or August 2002.

The association is the only group recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as an accrediting agency for doctoral and postdoctoral programs in clinical psychology. So if Fuller lost its accreditation, Wagener said, its students “wouldn't be able to receive the most prestigious internships, wouldn't be able to be employed by the federal government, wouldn't be able to work for the Veterans Administration. Our graduates would be discriminated against.”

Invoking the Footnote

Only a few of the association's 814 member schools invoke the footnote. A handful of other programs currently seeking accreditation also planned to invoke it. “We are a Christian community, so we hire our faculty on the basis not only of their academic credentials but on the basis of their Christian commitment,” Wagener explained.

“We have had gays and lesbians as part of our community before,” Wagener said, but “Everyone is expected to live by our standards, which do include a sexual standard that prohibits sex outside of marriage. It is expected that [homosexuals] would be celibate.” Fuller has asked faculty members to leave because of heterosexual affairs, but has never dealt with a case of active homosexuality.

Religious Freedom

Rhea Farberman, spokeswoman for the association, said that there were “competing rights: the right of a religious institution to conduct its program as it sees fit within the accreditation guidelines, versus the right for gay and lesbian students to be a part of programs and not be discriminated against.”

Farberman said that the association was still in “a true information-gathering stage,” and that no decision would be taken until the comment period ended Sept. 1.

She said that she had not heard of “any specific complaints” that homosexual students or faculty were excluded, “but I know of a general concern that Footnote Four may create an environment where gay and lesbian people would not be allowed to be a part of the program.”

Farberman said the association wanted to preserve “diversity broadly defined—people of faith, and gay and lesbian people.”

The proposal to scrap the footnote has not generated “any overwhelming response,” Farberman said.

She added that no one yet knew how the change might affect specific programs like Fuller's. “It's too early to talk about ‘what will happen if,’” she said.

One of the issues the committee will consider is a potential legal challenge. The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty has already announced that it will challenge the association in court if the religious exemption is removed.

Patrick Korten, vice president of the Becket Fund, said, “The issue here is the religious liberty of religiously affiliated colleges.”

Because of the association's ties to the Department of Education, Korten said, the association is “what we refer to in the law as a state actor,” acting in place of the federal government.

“Therefore, we take the position that they must abide by the Constitution and especially the First Amendment,” he continued. “In our view, the First Amendment requires that they allow flexibility on the part of religiously affiliated institutions.”

Korten noted, “It is fairly common for religiously affiliated institutions of higher learning to either give some preference to, or to actively recruit, both faculty and students that share that faith tradition and that is obviously central to the mission of just about any religious school.”

Korten said, “I can't imagine that the APA would do anything as foolish as to drop this exemption. I can't imagine that they would—but stranger things have happened.”

Echoes of Freud

One of the underlying reasons for the conflict, Wagener charged, was psychology's longstanding skepticism of religion.

“Christian programs in psychology are rare,” Wagener said, noting that Fuller was the first Christian school to institute a doctoral program in psychology. “There was pretty clear discrimination against religious people in the profession of psychology.”

Farberman disagreed, saying, “I don't see that at all. I have seen in the last half decade an embracing of faith and people of faith within mainstream psychology.”

But Wagener cited studies showing that only about 30% of psychologists said they had a religious faith, compared to about 90% of Americans in general. “Some of the founding figures of psychology, like Freud, viewed religion as psychopathology,” she added.

“I think that's changing,” she said. Nonetheless, she said, Fuller has had to “struggle” to win accreditation.

“We've always had trouble,” Wagener said. “Our last accreditation visit in 1998 was the easiest one we'd ever had. We didn't have to have repeat visitors, we didn't have to have lawyers explain our position.”

But “just when we thought things were settling down,” she said, the footnote controversy threatened the school all over again.

If the footnote is eliminated, Wagener feared, “I don't know how we could attract students or why students would take the risk to come here.”