Legal Protections for (Anti-Gay) Religious Counselors Advance in Tennessee

Stop and stop speaking
Please stop talking and leave. I don’t counsel gay people.

Tennessee’s State Senate voted 22 to 4 to approve SB 514 today; the bill prohibits public universities from discriminating against or disciplining any student in a counseling, social work, or psychology program based on the student’s “refus[al] to counsel or serve a client as to goals, outcomes, or behaviors that conflict with a sincerely held religious belief of the student.”

This means, in effect, that a student could freely refuse to counsel or serve an LGBT client, or any other client, if the student believed that treating the client would violate the student’s religious convictions (provided the student could draw some connection to objectionable “goals, outcomes, or behaviors,” which would not be difficult in most cases). Even if the school thought the student’s refusal harmed the client or violated professional codes of conduct, the school’s options would be sharply limited: It could not take any action against the student who refused to provide the service.

If I understand the bill correctly—and I’m afraid I do—it would essentially allow any student to re-write important aspects of professional standards of care to suit whatever idiosyncratic religious beliefs the student holds.

Read a recent version of the bill.

Fortunately, the bill provides that the rejected client must get a referral to another provider. But I haven’t seen any language guaranteeing a referral to a provider who is of any particular quality, or who is nearby, accessible and available.

Though I recognize and respect the value of accommodating sincerely held religious beliefs where reasonably possible, SB 514 does not strike the right balance—or even come close. Students who voluntarily enter a university program to join a profession like counseling, social work or psychology must be prepared to serve a vast diversity of clients in need. Allowing individual students to re-write the profession’s rules to avoid serving particular clients risks serious harm to the profession, and of course to the people who seek out the students’ help.

For more information and background on these developments, see this post at the Nashville Scene and this article from Salon. As the Salon piece explains, the legislation was inspired by the case of a graduate student who was expelled after she refused to counsel gay clients and clients who had premarital sex. The Nashville Scene reports that the bill is “stalled” in the other house of Tennessee’s legislature, though I haven’t found any other sources to confirm that yet.

MK