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)