Kentucky passes, and Tennessee considers, “conscience clause” legislation

Bills would allow religious therapists to refuse treatment to gay and lesbian clients.

Kentucky state capitol buildingIt has been a big week for court cases on the rights of gays and lesbians, with California’s Proposition 8 and the federal Defense of Marriage Act both debated at the US Supreme Court. In the mental health world, over the past few months, Eastern Michigan University settled the Julea Ward case without admitting wrongdoing, the “Julea Ward Freedom of Conscience Act” languished in the Michigan legislature, and Jennifer Keeton lost her discrimination case against Augusta State. At a glance, it appears that gay and lesbian clients are making progress toward equality under the law and protection from discrimination in mental health care.

Kentucky and Tennessee, however, appear to be going in a different direction. Both states have moved to protect those therapists who would choose not to treat gay and lesbian clients based on the therapist’s religious beliefs.


In Kentucky, the state legislature has enacted a broadly-worded law to protect religious belief, even overriding the Governor’s veto to do so. The entirety of the new state law:

“Government shall not substantially burden a person’s freedom of religion. The right to act or refuse to act in a manner motivated by a sincerely held religious belief may not be substantially burdened unless the government proves by clear and convincing evidence that it has a compelling governmental interest in infringing the specific act or refusal to act and has used the least restrictive means to further that interest. A ‘burden’ shall include indirect burdens such as withholding benefits, assessing penalties, or an exclusion from programs or access to facilities.”

While the law is broad, it seems to me that it would clearly apply to a future case similar to Ward’s or Keeton’s; a student therapist refusing to treat gay and lesbian clients (in the language of the law, “refus[ing] to act”) based on a sincerely held religious belief could not be removed from their university (“exclusion from programs”) or even disciplined in any way (“assessing penalties”). Yes, the “unless” clause creates a possible exception, but it also creates a very high bar for that exception. And although the bill applies specifically to government, the state’s major family therapy programs — at Kentucky, Western Kentucky, and Louisville — are all housed in public (state-government-funded) institutions, so courts would be likely to apply the new law to any actions taken by these programs.

It is also notable that the Kentucky bill is so broad that it would apply in any setting, not just universities, so licensed therapists working in public mental health settings also appear to be granted the freedom to discriminate in client care based on their religious beliefs, without fear of repercussions.


Tennessee, meanwhile, is considering a much more specific bill modeled after last year’s unsuccessful effort at conscience clause legislation in Michigan. The Tennessee bill, which would allow students in counseling, psychology, or social work programs to refuse to treat clients based on the student’s religious beliefs so long as they refer to a therapist willing to serve the clients, has moved forward in the state legislature despite objections from psychology faculty at the University of Tennessee. Those faculty members argued that the bill would allow

“a Hindu, opposed to killing animals, refusing to counsel a hunter; a Christian refusing to provide counseling to a Jew; [and] a student who opposes alcohol consumption refusing to counsel someone with a drinking problem.”

The professors went on to argue that, by allowing therapists to make the kinds of choices described above, the bill would force educational programs to allow their students to violate professional codes of ethics. This, they argue, would threaten the programs’ accreditation status. (As I’ve mentioned before, accreditation has been a handy cudgel for those on both sides of the debate.)

The bill (SB514) has passed the Tennessee Senate and is currently awaiting hearing in the state House of Representatives.

Other states

There seems to be some confusion (especially in the Tennessee legislature) about whether the Michigan bill (HB5040 and SB518, in 2011) passed; as best as I can tell, it never made it out of that state’s Senate Education Committee. A similar Arizona bill, however, was successful, so these proposals seem to be batting about .500 so far.

As I have said previously, the underlying issues are complex. It is of course true that every mental health profession’s code of ethics prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. But many of those same codes also require therapists to place the client’s values above their own — and to make referrals when the therapist is unable to do that, or if the therapist is unable, for any reason, to provide competent treatment. Religious therapists who have strong beliefs against homosexuality are placed in the difficult position of balancing the ethical requirement that they not discriminate with the ethical requirement that they provide competent services, without letting their own values interfere. What seems to be clear is that if mental health professional groups cannot better clarify these issues on their own, some state legislatures are quite willing do it for them.

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