Tennessee Bill Lets Grad Student Counselors Reject Clients Based On Religion

The Tennessee state Senate is mulling over a bill that would allow graduate students to turn away clients with different religious beliefs. While there are many reasons cited against the bill, the opposition should focus on the violations in professionalism that could result in passing the legislation.  

The bill spawns from a Michigan court case in 2009 in which Julea Ward, a Christian graduate student, was dismissed from the Eastern Michigan University master’s degree program for refusing to help a client who had received previous counseling about a homosexual relationship. In response to Ward’s case, the Michigan state legislature passed a bill June of last year called the “Julea Ward freedom of conscience act” that prohibits state public universities from disciplining students in counseling, social work and psychology for declining clients based on a dissonance in religious beliefs.

Georgia has drafted a similar legislation and lawmakers in Tennessee are in support despite a myriad of objections from educational institutions, psychiatry professional groups, and civil rights organizations to the Michigan bill and the proposed Tennessee bill.

The proponents of the Tennessee bill, including the Family Action Council of Tennessee and State Rep. John J. DeBerry Jr., argue that in the name of religious liberty, it is important to prohibit schools from disciplining students for refusal to serve clients with different beliefs.

However, individuals who choose to pursue a health care career in counseling and psychiatry have a professional obligation to better their clients’ health without a conflict of personal interest, as stated in the American Counseling Association’s Code of Ethics.

Section C.5 states that the association does not “condone or engage in discrimination” against clients and students. These factors include religion, spirituality, gender identity and sexual orientation. Professors at the University of Tennessee’s psychology program appeared before the state Senate Education Committee in testimony, urging the lawmakers to defeat the bill because it is a violation of the profession’s code of ethics, and to approve this bill would discredit all counseling college programs in the state.

According to the American Counseling Association (ACA), a counselor is a professional who, among other duties, helps clients find “potential solutions to problems which cause emotional turmoil” and “strengthen self-esteem.” Research has shown that suicide among lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) youth is higher than among the general population and that they are eight times more likely to have attempted suicide if they “experience high levels of rejection.”

Tennessee lawmakers argue religious liberty, but by instating such a bill that is in direct response to the Michigan court case involving counseling in religion and sexual orientation, Tennessee and other states would effectively be polarizing and promoting discrimination against a community that is already statistically a psychologically weak target. Legalizing this bill could cause the "high levels of rejection" that counselors are licensed to help clients through.

Freedom from religious persecution founded the U.S., and religious liberty is an important principle to uphold. However, denying a patient based on different beliefs is not only an issue of religious liberty — it is an issue of accreditation and professionalism.