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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Eastern Michigan settles Julea Ward case

The university settled in December and will pay Ward $75,000, according to

JudgesTools IconJulea Ward’s lawsuit against her graduate program in counseling at Eastern Michigan University took several interesting turns last year. The case started when Ward refused to counsel a gay client as part of her training; the university determined this was discrimination, and expelled Ward from the program. She sued, claiming she was being singled out for her religious beliefs. I’ve previously discussed the case here and here.

Ward’s case is often discussed in the same breath as Jennifer Keeton’s. Keeton sued Augusta State University, where she had been a graduate student in counseling, after the university expelled her for clearly stating her refusal to counsel gay and lesbian clients and her unwillingness to complete a university-mandated remediation plan.

While Keeton lost her case, Ward appeared to at least have some chance of winning hers. In a footnote within his ruling in favor of Augusta State University in the Keeton case, United States District Judge J. Randal Hall made it clear that the two cases had similar themes but very different specifics (citations removed, and paragraph breaks and emphasis added, for clarity):

This case is distinguishable. In Ward, the plaintiff, a student enrolled in Eastern Michigan University’s graduate counseling program, asked to refer a gay client during her practicum course because she claimed that her faith prevented her from affirming a client’s same-sex relationships. No remediation plan was issued; instead, the plaintiff was promptly dismissed from the program following a formal review. […] The plaintiff in Ward was disciplined after she asked to refer a client, but evidence showed that the university may not have had a policy prohibiting such referrals; indeed, there was evidence that referrals had been permitted for others in the past. […] The Sixth Circuit held that a juror could find that the plaintiff was dismissed because of her religious views.

This case presents a stark contrast: Keeton was cited by faculty for statements which evinced an intent to clearly violate program policies, i.e., according to the remediation plan, faculty believed that Keeton had expressed an interest in conversion therapy. Moreover, Keeton later stated definitively, and without mention of referral, that she would not withhold open judgment of a client’s sexual choices in a counseling session, action also in violation of program policies. One final set of facts serves to
distinguish the two cases – Keeton was not, like the plaintiff in Ward, summarily dismissed. Instead, she was subjected to a remediation plan, the details and import of which was painstakingly explained by faculty members through meetings, written plans, emails, and face-to-face discussions. […]

In sum, the patience and measure exhibited by faculty members during the course of Keeton’s protracted remediation proceedings, coupled with the nature and content of their efforts to ensure that Keeton understood how her actions violated professional ethics and could harm future clients, mark this case as different from Ward.

Eastern Michigan, apparently seeing the writing on the wall, chose to settle with Ward and has agreed to pay her $75,000. Notably, the university is neither admitting any wrongdoing nor changing any of its policies as a result of the ruling, according to In the meantime, Michigan’s legislature debated the “Julea Ward Freedom of Conscience Act” — which would have allowed graduate students in mental health to refuse to treat gay and lesbian clients if providing treatment would conflict with the student’s religious beliefs.

I’ve written about that and a similar “conscience clause” bill that did become law in Arizona. A similar bill has now been proposed in Tennessee, which I’ll tackle in a separate post.

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Universities win two discrimination lawsuits brought by student therapists

Jennifer Keeton had refused to treat gay clients, and Maria Salcido alleged that racial bias kept her from finishing her family therapy degree.

JudgesTools IconThere have been at least three recent lawsuits involving students in the mental health professions and allegations of discrimination. In recent rulings, universities prevailed in two of those suits: Jennifer Keeton’s case against Augusta State University, and Maria Salcido’s case against Southern Miss University. The third case, in which Julea Ward sued Eastern Michigan University, remains in court.

In 2010, Jennifer Keeton sued Augusta State. The school had expelled her from its counseling program after she had said many times over in classes and in meetings with school officials that she would not counsel gay or lesbian clients. The university offered Keeton a remediation plan, with the hope of aiding her in not imposing her values on clients. Keeton claimed the university was trying to force her to change her religious beliefs. The university insisted that the intent of the remediation was in keeping with the ACA Code of Ethics. The ACA Code requires that counselors not impose their values on clients, regardless of what the counselor’s personal values may be.

A federal district court last month ruled in favor of the university. Importantly, the judge in the case also reinforced the importance of professional ethical codes, noting

[W]hen someone voluntarily chooses to enter a profession, he or she must comply with its rules and ethical requirements. […] The ACA and ASCA Codes, with their emphasis on the counselor’s role in facilitating personal client growth and self-determination, both expressly proscribe the imposition of a counselor’s personal views in counseling situations.

The AAMFT Code of Ethics, like most professional codes, includes a non-discrimination statement. Interestingly, the AAMFT Code does not include the kind of clear prohibition against professionals imposing their own personal values that is found in the codes of other organizations. At best, it is implied in the AAMFT Code. That could become important if an MFT program is ever challenged in court over similar issues.


In a separate case last year, Maria Salcido filed a claim against Southern Miss, alleging that racial bias kept her from completing her MFT degree there. She had withdrawn after being unable to find a placement site for her required externship experience. Her suit accused the university of preventing her from getting a placement because of her race.

She not only lost her case, the language of the court ruling against her suggests frustration that she wasted everyone’s time:

[Salcido’s] bare factual allegations are seasoned with healthy doses of legal conclusions and fall far short of plausibly suggesting a discriminatory state of mind on the part of any defendant.

That was how the court reacted to her discrimination claim; she didn’t fare any better on the other claims she made against the university. The entirety of her suit was dismissed with prejudice.


Together, these rulings appear to suggest that students cannot use accusations of discrimination to get what they want from graduate programs in mental health, particularly when (as in Keeton’s case) they are asking to overrule academic decisions tied to the ethical standards of the profession the student is trying to get into. Unfortunately, it is too early to say the question is settled: the Julea Ward case is still out there, and it bears more than a few things in common with Keeton’s. (The judge in Keeton’s case uses a lengthy footnote to discuss what is different between the Ward and Keeton cases [pages 49-50], one of many reasons that ruling is worth reading.) I’ve previously written about the Ward lawsuit, a recent ruling that keeps the Ward case alive, and “conscience clause” legislation proposed as a direct result of Ward’s experience.

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