New Tennessee Bill Would Allow Christian Grad Student Counselors to Refuse LGBT Clients

You remember Julea Ward.

Julea Ward

Ward was a graduate student in counseling at Eastern Michigan University. Because she was a Christian, she refused to treat a suicidal gay student because her faith prevented her from “helping him feel better about himself.”

After she refused to undergo LGBT “sensitivity training,” EMU kicked her out of their grad program. In 2010, a judge supported the school’s decision. Ward and her lawyers appealed it. Instead of continuing a drawn-out legal battle, EMU opted to settle the case and pay Ward $75,000 to basically go away.

The Michigan House of Representatives also passed a bill in her honor so that no school could punish a student “who refuse[d] to counsel a client because of a ‘sincerely held religious belief.’” (The Senate never acted on it.)

Now, Tennessee legislators are working with Ward’s lawyers and conservative activist David Fowler (president of the Family Action Council of Tennessee) in order to pass a similar bill. Because why wouldn’t someone want to reward such admirable bigotry…?

Senate Bill 514 (PDF) is sponsored by State Senator Joey Hensley (while House Bill 1185 is sponsored by State Rep. John J. DeBerry, Jr.) and would allow religion to be used as an excuse for not treating a client:

State Sen. Joey Hensley

A public institution of higher education operating under chapter 8 or 9 of this title shall not discipline or discriminate 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.

It’s similar to what Christian pharmacists want with their “conscience clauses” — they want to get out of doing their jobs if they disagree with you on a moral level. Just as those pharmacists want the right to not give you birth control pills that your doctor prescribed, this bill would let social workers-in-training refuse gay clients because they oppose gay rights for religious reasons, in essence, giving Christians a green light to be bigots outside of church without fear of punishment.

Jake Morris, director of the graduate program in counseling at Lipscomb University, said students need to be able to treat a wide range of clients, not just those who share their religious values.

“I want my students to be able to help anyone who walks in their door,” he said. For example, if a student thinks divorce is sinful, that student still needs to know how to treat clients who have gone through a divorce.”

Students, Morris said, should be exposed to a wide range of clients while in training. That will help them become competent professionals.

“We are health care professionals,” he said. “We need to act like it.”

That’s really the issue here. This bill would allow religious students to graduate even if they’re unable to do the work required in such professions. It’s not about religious liberty — no one is forcing the counselors to “accept” homosexuality; they just have to help their clients.

What’s next for Tennessee?

Will Christian students who want to become science teachers be able to get out of teaching evolution because it conflicts with their sincerely held religious beliefs?

What about Christians who want to become health educators but refuse to teach students about condoms?

Would Christian doctors be able to refuse patients who are having pre-marital sex?

Where does the line get drawn between doing your job and using your religion as an excuse to get out of it?

Student who can’t perform the basic duties of the profession they want to go into should do us all a favor and find a new line of work. I don’t expect vegetarians (like myself) to apply for a job at McDonald’s if they refuse to serve meat products to customer. And Christian grad students shouldn’t get a pass on treating patients just because they have hangups about how those patients live their lives.

If you want to judge other people, become a pastor. If you want to become a counselor, then do your job and learn how to counsel people.

Incidentally, the University of Tennessee is strongly opposed to this legislation:

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

The impact of this bill will likely place accreditation at risk for TN counseling programs.

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.

(Thanks to Christina for the link)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.


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