Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, signed into law by Governor Mike Pence last week, has raised a great deal of controversy. In the psychotherapy community, the law could have an immediate impact in the form of professional events and conferences moving out of the state. In the longer term, the bill is likely to impact training and practice by making it harder for universities and licensing boards to discipline discriminatory behavior.
It is worth noting that Indiana is not the only state with some version of this law on its books. Twenty states and the federal government have some version of it. But the Indiana law is especially far-reaching for two reasons: 1, it specifically applies to businesses, giving them the same right to religious expression as individuals; and 2, it allows for a religious-freedom claim in a lawsuit between private parties, even when the government is not involved in the suit.
It is these pieces that have raised particular alarms in the business community. Large companies have cancelled expansion plans in Indiana, and there have been calls for the NCAA to move events out of the state. In each case, concerns have been raised that the law will allow private businesses to freely discriminate, needing only to cite religious belief as the reason.
Here, I’ll look at the likely impacts of Indiana’s new law specifically as it applies to psychotherapists. My focus here is on the major psychotherapy licenses: psychologists, counselors, family therapists, and clinical social workers. The impacts here could apply to others, like substance abuse counselors and coaches, as well. Of course, I’m not a lawyer, and a lot of this would ultimately be determined in court. But these are impacts I think are reasonably foreseeable.
The push to create bills at the state level protecting religious freedom gained steam in the past few years, due in part to two lawsuits involving counseling students. Julea Ward and Jennifer Keeton were each expelled by their graduate programs after expressing their unwillingness to work with gay and lesbian clients because of their religious beliefs. Keeton lost her suit against Augusta State University, while Ward won a settlement from Eastern Michigan University.
While the proposed bill in Michigan named for Ward did not become law, the broader state religious-freedom bills in Indiana and elsewhere would appear to make it much more difficult for universities to discipline students who wish to discriminate based on sincere religious belief. This will be especially true for state-funded universities.
Indiana’s bill could make it legal for individual therapists to turn away gay and lesbian clients based on the therapist’s sincerely held religious belief. “Could” is the key word, as this would need to be tested in court. Of course, such discrimination would remain a violation of the code of ethics in each of the mental health professions, so a therapist who discriminates in this way could still be kicked out of their professional organization. But it is possible that Indiana would not be able to take action against the license of a mental health professional who discriminated in who the therapist would take on as clients.
In fact, the Indiana law could make it difficult for the professional licensing boards to sanction much of any behavior they ordinarily would punish, if the therapist could defend that behavior as being part of a religious practice. The law also would make it more difficult for the state to effectively ban so-called “reparative therapy” for minors in the way that California, New Jersey, and the District of Columbia have done.
Perhaps the most visible immediate impact of Indiana’s law is that professional conferences and events will choose to go elsewhere. That’s certainly prudent for the professional associations of psychotherapists. Any association that promotes inclusivity should not hold its conference in a state where attendees could be legally refused service at a hotel or restaurant simply for being gay. In states that block use of state funds for travel to Indiana, therapists and educators who normally would travel to conferences using university or other state funding will have to either pay their own way to get to conferences in Indiana, or not go at all.
Here’s a quick rundown of the major mental health professional associations and their conference plans:
The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, which is planning its 2016 conference in Indianapolis, has said it is monitoring the situation closely. Notably, AAMFT’s 2017 conference is slated for Atlanta; a bill similar to Indiana’s stalled in the Georgia legislature last week.
The American Counseling Association is holding its 2016 conference in Montreal, and then has a tour of the south planned, with its 2017 conference in Nashville, 2018 in Atlanta, and 2019 in New Orleans. Nashville (Tennessee) and New Orleans (Louisiana) are both in states with religious-freedom bills on the books, though these states’ laws are not as far-reaching as Indiana’s. They are written in such a manner as to apply to individuals, not businesses.
Looking at future conferences of the American Psychological Association, only their 2019 conference in Chicago is in a state (Illinois) with a religious-freedom bill on the books. The National Association of Social Workers does not publish its future conference calendar online.
Yesterday, Indiana Republicans said they would revisit the religious freedom law in an attempt to resolve the concerns raised. At present, the law is scheduled to take effect July 1.