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State Senate: Vote NO on Senate Bill 514; head of Lipscomb counseling program says it's a bad idea

Sen. Joey Hensley has introduced a bill that prohibits public institutions of higher education from disciplining or discriminating 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. - Amends TCA Title 4 and Title 49.

Basically this bill would allow students in certain programs to claim a religious exemption from helping certain people. The cases from other states that are cited in support of the bill typically involve clients from the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community. The law would allow students who are going into counseling professions to discriminate against such clients on the basis of religion.

The bill would have an impact on people who need counseling or assistance and it would harm the accreditation of the programs at our public universities.

Letter to
State Senate
Tennessee State Senate
Vote NO on Senate Bill 514
I am writing to ask you to vote NO on SB514, which would allow students in counseling, psychology, or social work programs in our public universities to opt out of serving people if they claim a religious objection.

In The Tennessean this week, the head of David Lipscomb University's counseling program indicated the bill is a bad idea: "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."

I am concerned about the impact this would have on people being served. As experts from our public university psychology, counseling, and social work programs testified last week, making a referral is not a benign event. It can have a negative impact on the client and should be a last resort. We need to consider what impact it would have on the client if he or she learned that the referral was made because of a counselor's religious objection.

Allowing students to opt out of serving a whole group of people because of a personal objection is not a lesson we should teach students going into counseling, psychology, or social work. If anything, their faith should be a motivation to help people, not decide who is deserving of help. The American Association of Christian Counselors Code of Ethics, for example, states: "Therefore, regardless of how we respond to and challenge harmful attitudes and actions, Christian counselors will express a loving care to any client, service-inquiring person, or anyone encountered in the course of practice or ministry, without regard to race, ethnicity, gender, sexual behavior or orientation, socio-economic status, education, denomination, belief system, values, or political affiliation. God’s love is unconditional and, at this level of concern, so must that of the Christian counselor."

I am also concerned about the impact this law might have on the accreditation of the programs at our universities. This issue should be carefully assessed before any action is taken on the bill. It was discussed in the Senate Education Committee, but there was no definitive answer. We certainly don't want to decrease the value of the degrees that we award in these fields. The bill seems to be an usual effort at micromanaging the curriculum and practices of a program. We have channels in our universities through their governance structures for addressing these issues if they arise in Tennessee.

Thank you for considering my views as you weigh your position on this bill.