Legislative Panel Approves Religious Opt-Out For Arkansas Counselors

Credit Michael Hibblen / KUAR News

A subcommittee of the Arkansas Legislature has given final approval to a rule allowing counselors to refer clients to another provider if they have religious objections to treating them. But critics say it could allow the denial of mental health services for LGBT people.

The Legislative Council's Rules and Regulations Subcommittee approved the proposal Tuesday by the Arkansas Board of Examiners in Counseling, which regulates about 2,800 counselors and therapists in the state.

Michael Loos, the board's executive director, says the modification of its ethics clause will allow the board to review whether practitioners citing religous objections have sought training and counsel from peers to address their biases. If so, the board can grant a waiver.

"It's intended to be a due diligence rule," he said. "The board is going to address each issue to ascertain whether the practitioner has done his or her due diligence in examining self and attending to issues with self that might interfere with effective counseling practice." 

Loos says professional ethics do bar excluding treatment because of moral beliefs or prejudice, but he says the rule is not intended to be discriminatory. Rather, he says it's designed to encourage due diligence. The rule says counselors cannot abandon someone who seeks assistance.

But the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBT advocacy group, is opposed to the change. Kendra Johnson, the group's state director, says it sounds like a familiar form of discrimination from the history of this country.

"You're creating a terrible precedent. So regardless of whether I want to pursue a therapist who may have some moral objection to my life, someone should not be able to turn me away based on my identity in this country. We've been down that road where people were turned away from restaurants or schools based on who they were," Johnson says.

She also believes it could also make it more difficult for LGBT people to receive care. About 50 percent of people aren't honest with their medical doctors about their sexual preference, Johnson says, making it harder for those people to get appropriate medical care and advice.. 

The rule change is also opposed by the American Counseling Association and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Meanwhile three of four members of the U.S. House Representatives from Arkansas signed on to pending legislation Tuesday, the First Amendment Defense Act, which would strengthen religious justifications for defining marriage as between a man and a woman.

Material from the Associated Press contributed to this report.