Legislation declaring that student counselors can reject clients with religious beliefs differing from their own is advancing over the objections of psychology professors who say the bill is counter to the profession’s ethical code and could threaten academic accreditation.
The bill (SB514) is similar to a Michigan law enacted last year after courts upheld the dismissal of Julea Ward from an Eastern Michigan University counseling program when, based on her Christian beliefs, she refused to counsel a homosexual student.
The bill is pushed by the Family Action Council of Tennessee, a Christian activist organization headed by David Fowler, a former state senator from Signal Mountain.
The measure declares that public colleges and universities “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.”
Dr. Brent Mallinckrodt, a professor in the University of Tennessee’s psychology program, was joined by four other past or present academicians in urging defeat of the measure in testimony before the Senate Education Committee.
He said Ward was “a sympathetic plaintiff,” the bill could have multiple “unintended consequences” in the training of psychologists at universities and harming rather than helping those who seek counseling. It could also lead to lawsuits by spurned clients or students unhappy with assigned clients.
“Wouldn’t a Quaker student be able to refuse to work with those veterans we are trying to draw in and help?” he asked.
Mallinckrodt also envisioned a Hindu, opposed to killing animals, refusing to counsel a hunter; a Christian refusing to provide counseling to a Jew; a student who opposes alcohol consumption refusing to counsel someone with a drinking problem.
A central tenet of psychology taught to all students, the professors said, is that a counselor must not let his or her personal beliefs interfere with the best interest of the client. That is part of the profession’s code of ethics, they said, and the bill, if enacted, would force student counselors to violate the code and perhaps threaten accreditation of college programs in the state.
But Fowler told the committee that arguments against the bill are “red herrings.”
If a Quaker who had religious beliefs opposing war was called upon to help a client “figure out how to kill people,” as opposed to dealing with trauma, that would be a valid reason to refuse to provide counseling, he said.
Fowler also rejected concerns over accreditation, declaring legislators should not “abdicate our constitutional rights to an accrediting body” and noted that Michigan has not faced such a problem.
Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, asked the professors if they could show “beyond the shadow of a doubt” that accreditation would indeed be lost if the bill passes. They replied that loss of accreditation could not be certain, but would seem at risk.
Rebecca Smith, chair of the Middle Tennessee State University Department of Social Work, said there have been no problems in Tennessee such as with Ward in Michigan and the bill is unneeded.
“This may be legislation looking for a Tennessee problem that does not exist,” she said.
Fowler, on the other hand, said that if there is no problem with discriminating against students because of their religious beliefs, the professors should have no problem with a law prohibiting such things.
All seven Republicans on the committee voted for the bill while two Democrats on the panel voted against it. It is scheduled for a Senate floor vote tonight.