Monday, May 6, 2013

Washington, Texas, Arizona, Michigan weighing "conscience clause" laws

Far-reaching laws would appear to place therapists' religious values above anti-discrimination rules.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            

The Washington State Capitol The states of Washington, Texas, Arizona, and Michigan have joined a growing list of states considering so-called "conscience clause" legislation, that would allow health care providers (including therapists) to refuse to treat specific types of clients based on the therapist's religious beliefs. Kansas governor Sam Brownback signed such bill into law in March, and a Kentucky bill was passed into law earlier this year through an override of the Governor's veto.

While some states have designed such bills specifically for health care settings, most of the recent conscience clause bills apply to all work settings that require state licensure or other involvement of state government. They use language very similar to that of the successful Kentucky bill:

"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."
As I mentioned in my earlier discussion of the Kentucky law, such language in any state would make it exceedingly difficult for marriage and family therapy graduate programs (if they receive state funding) to discipline or expel students who plainly state their intent to discriminate when providing therapy services. It would also mean that state licensure boards would have a high burden when attempting to discipline the license of a therapist who was discriminatory in their practice.

While written to protect religious freedom in broad terms, it can be argued that these laws are emerging with a more specific, if not directly spoken, purpose in mind: to allow religious business owners and health care providers to freely discriminate against gay and lesbian clients. That has certainly been a concern with the Kentucky religious freedom law. The Washington law, meanwhile, arose in response to a consumer protection lawsuit that the state's Attorney General filed against a florist who had refused to provide flowers for a gay couple's wedding (same-sex marriage is legal in Washington). The lawsuit argued that the florist, who cited religion in refusing to serve the couple, was illegally discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation.

The text of the proposed conscience clause legislation in Washington makes the target of the law clear once you know what the bolded language here means (emphasis added):

Nothing in this section may burden a person or religious organization's freedom of religion including, but not limited to, the right of an individual or entity to deny services if providing those goods or services would be contrary to the individual's or entity owner's sincerely held religious beliefs, philosophical beliefs, or matters of conscience. This subsection does not apply to the denial of services to individuals recognized as a protected class under federal law applicable to the state as of the effective date of this section. The right to act or refuse to act in a manner motivated by a sincerely held religious belief, philosophical belief, or matter of conscience may not be burdened unless the government proves 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.
Federal law currently prohibits discrimination against a variety of protected classes. Discrimination based on race, gender, disability, or nationality is prohibited under federal law, for example. But gays and lesbians are not a protected class in federal law. So the main impact of this bill would be to allow discrimination, based on religious belief or matters of conscience, against gay and lesbian clients.

Still, the broad wording of these laws allows for much farther-reaching impact. A commentary on the Washington proposal in the (Salem, OR) Statesman-Journal suggests that it could revive religious objections to mixed-race couples. The group Americans United for Separation of Church and State describes other acts that these bills appear to legalize:

A pharmacist could refuse to provide Plan B drugs to a rape victim. The owner of an apartment building could refuse to rent to an unmarried couple.

These examples and more can be applied to therapists and their clients, with the therapist either as discriminator or victim. A therapist under these laws may refuse to treat gay and lesbian clients. In states that leave out the federal law stipulation that Washington included, that therapist may also refuse to treat Mexicans, or Mormons, or any other group they see fit to turn away. Therapists working at hospitals, in group practices, or in other settings as employees might also be discriminated against at the moral whim of their employers, who would be able to summarily fire therapists who have premarital sex (or who don't, if the employer decides that their personal morals favor premarital sex), or who identify as gay or lesbian. Each of these would be of questionable legality even under the new laws, because of the potentially overriding impact of federal anti-discrimination law, but they would appear to be clearly illegal in most instances under current law. Bringing the legality of such acts into question -- inviting lawsuits to sort out the underlying issues, and placing a high burden on the state to justify any restriction of acts of morality or conscience -- seems to be the idea.

Ultimately, if these and similar laws continue to pass around the country, the non-discrimination clause in the AAMFT Code of Ethics may best be considered moot. Any therapist with moral or religious beliefs that declare some people to be unequal could freely discriminate on the basis of race, gender, nationality, or any other basis without fear of any repercussions against their license. AAMFT could still act on an ethics complaint, even removing a therapist from the association. But the therapist would never need to inform clients that the complaint had happened, and could freely continue in practice as the state could not discipline their license.

Bills similar to the ones enacted in Kansas and Kentucky, and proposed in Washington and Tennessee, are now pending in several other states:

  • In Texas, a religious-freedom act already exists in state law, but Texas Senate Joint Resolution 4 would make that law part of the state Constitution.
  • Nevada Senate Bill 192 is similarly broad and has advanced through the Senate to the state Assembly.
  • In Arizona, Senate Bill 1178 has been amended from a bill on long-term disability into a broad religious-freedom measure.
  • And in Michigan, where religious-freedom legislation proposed in response to the Julea Ward case failed last year, a broader bill on religious freedom in health care (Michigan Senate Bill 136) is making progress. Among other changes, the Michigan bill would (quoting a Senate Committee Analysis) "Prohibit an employer from penalizing a health provider and prohibit a university, college, or educational institution from refusing admission to an individual or penalizing a student or member of its faculty or staff for expressing a conscientious objection or requesting an accommodation to avoid participating in a health care service."

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