Debate Continues Over Conscientious Objector Bill For Counseling Students

The Tennessee House Education Committee will resume the debate this year over legislation that impacts counseling, social work, and psychology programs in public higher education.  The legislation is based on the ill-informed assumption that the practice of social work and psychological counseling is fundamentally about providing spiritual and personal advice.

In reality, the professional practice of social work and psychological counseling involves the clinical application of treatment to persons irrespective of their spiritual needs.  The legislation (HB1185/SB0514) allows a counseling student to arbitrarily deny treatment to any client with whom they might claim to have a religious difference.

Students are made fully aware of the ethical codes governing the training programs at the beginning of their respective academic programs.   Yet, proponents of the legislation argue that the ethical codes that require counselors, including student trainees, to treat the clinical needs of all patients should no longer be recognized as reasonable guides.

Social Work and Psychology professionals have clearly defined scopes of practice and ethical guidelines adopted by national associations, which govern their respective professions.  The implication from proponents is clear:  Professional obligation to provide clinical treatment, even through a state sponsored clinical program, does not apply if the client’s religious belief differs from that of the practitioner.  Perhaps the greatest damage done by such legislation is the implication that emergency rooms and courtrooms will be next.  Proponents argue that the accrediting associations such as the American Psychological Association, and by extension, the American Bar Association, or the American Medical Association, have no standing in Tennessee.  The bill, which has passed in the Senate already, has the potential to capriciously damage the training and professional practices of counseling in Tennessee.

 

Counselors-in-Training Bill Nears Critical House Subcommittee

The Senate adopted SB514 last week, disregarding the concerns of Counseling, Social Work and Psychology professionals and training programs across the state. The legislation is predicated on the incorrect notion that the practice of social work and psychological counseling is more fundamentally about providing spiritual and personal advice.  In practice, however, the professions of social work and psychological counseling involve the clinical application of treatment to persons irrespective of their spiritual needs. The legislation essentially allows a counseling student trainee to arbitrarily deny treatment to any client with whom they might claim to have a religious difference.

Currently, all trainees are made fully aware of the ethical codes governing the training programs at the beginning of their respective academic programs.

Proponents of the legislation argue that the ethical codes that require counselors, including student trainees, to treat the clinical needs of all patients should no longer be recognized as reasonable guides.

The measure was adopted by the Senate on a 22-4 vote.

The implication from proponents of the legislation is clear: Professional obligation to provide clinical treatment, even through a state sponsored clinical program,  does not apply if the client’s religious belief differs in any way from that of the practitioner.

Proponents argue that accrediting associations such as the American Psychological Association, and by extension, the American Bar Association, or the American Medical Association have no standing in Tennessee.

What will happen to the ethical tenant of “First, do no harm?”  Will Tennessee train doctors to deny treatment to anyone whose religious beliefs differ from their own, even if it causes harm to the patient in question?

These are now the ethical quandaries facing our colleges of social work and psychology across the state. This legislation, if adopted by both chambers, has the potential to capriciously damage the training and professional practices of counseling in Tennessee, and places program accreditation at risk.

Upon further testimony from experts in social work, psychology, and counseling from across the state, it appears the House Education Subcommittee will potentially end the debate during their vote next week.

SB514 Passes Senate Committee Despite Widespread Concern Amongst Counseling, Social Work, Psychology Professions

The Senate Education Committee passed SB514 yesterday, a bill that prohibits public institutions of higher education from disciplining, expelling, providing remediation to, discriminating, or taking any other adverse action against a student in a counseling, social work, or psychology program because the student refuses to counsel or serve a client as to goals, outcomes, or behaviors that conflict with a sincerely held religious belief of the student, if the student refers the client to a counselor who will provide the counseling or services.

Faculty members of counseling, psychology, and social work programs from institutions across the state bill gave strong testimony against the bill.  It was clear that this legislation will cause numerous problems in implementation and in practice.  Some of these are listed below:

  • The impact of this bill will likely place accreditation at risk for TN counseling programs.
  • In counseling and social work, the best possible education requires students and trainees to learn to serve people of all backgrounds and belief systems.  Students agree to do so through a “Statement of Training Values” upon enrolling.
  • Very often, conflicts based on sincerely held religious beliefs do not occur until after many counseling sessions, after a relationship has already been established between patient and counselor.  Referrals, even if they are prompt, can be extremely stressful to patients and can cause harm.
  • The existing professional code works.  Current law works.  In the classroom, students enjoy great religious and free speech liberty.  As practitioners-in-training, students are given the best and broadest education possible in preparation for the workforce.
  • Professional counselors do not discriminate based on age, gender, gender identity, race, ethnicity, culture, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, disability, socioeconomic status, or any basis prescribed by law. This expectation is set through professional and ethical codes associated with the counseling profession.

The opposition, led by the Family Action Council of Tennessee, referenced similar legislation that passed in Arizona, pointing out that no program has lost accreditation as a result.

Without any questions, the committee then passed the legislation on a 7-2 vote.

It should be noted that the Arizona law is significantly different than the proposed Tennessee law.  The AZ law clearly makes the needs of the client a priority, and explicitly states that students will work with supervising instructors to identify a course of action that avoids harm to the client.  The proposed Tennessee law does not have similar provisions.

The bill has been calendared for the House Education Subcommittee for March 12, 2013.  The Senate deferred action on the bill to March 14, 2013. To check the bill status, click here.

The vote from the Senate Education Committee is listed below:

Voting Aye:
Sen. Dolores Gresham, Chair  (R-Somerville)
Sen. Joey Hensley (R-Hohenwald)
Sen. Steve Dickerson (R-Nashville)Sen. Stacey Campfield (R-Knoxville)
Sen. Rusty Crowe (R-Johnson City)
Sen. Todd Gardenhire (R-Chattanooga)
Sen. Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown)

Voting No:
Sen. Charlotte Burks (D-Monterey)
Sen. Reggie Tate (D-Memphis)

Do No Harm? SB514 Undermines Professional Code of Counselors, Psychologists

“Do No Harm.”  This value permeates the medical field.  While applicable in a multitude of medical contexts, this expectation also exists in the fields of psychology and counseling.

What does this have to do with SB514?

SB 514 prohibits public institutions of higher education from disciplining, expelling, providing remediation to, discriminating, or taking any other adverse action against a student in a counseling, social work, or psychology program because the student refuses to counsel or serve a client as to goals, outcomes, or behaviors that conflict with a sincerely held religious belief of the student, if the student refers the client to a counselor who will provide the counseling or services.

While well intentioned, this bill would cause numerous problems in implementation and in practice.

Please consider:

  • The impact of this bill will likely place accreditation at risk for TN counseling programs.
  • In counseling, the best possible education requires students and trainees to learn to serve people of all backgrounds and belief systems.  Students agree to do so through a “Statement of Training Values” upon enrolling in counseling programs.
  • Very often, conflicts based on sincerely held religious beliefs do not occur until after many counseling sessions, after a relationship has already been established between patient and counselor.  Referrals, even if they are prompt, can be extremely stressful to patients and can cause harm.
  • The existing professional code works.  Current law works.  In the classroom, students enjoy great religious and free speech liberty.  As practitioners-in-training, students are given the best and broadest education possible in preparation for the workforce.
  • Professional counselors do not discriminate based on age, gender, gender identity, race, ethnicity, culture, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, disability, socioeconomic status, or any basis prescribed by law. This expectation is set through professional and ethical codes associated with the counseling profession.

This bill will be heard tomorrow in the Senate Education Committee at 3:00 PM CST.