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Arkansas legislature okays bill to allow therapists to discriminate

Arkansas legislature okays bill to allow therapists to discriminate
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Arkansas lawmakers gave final approval Tuesday to a rule allowing counselors to refer clients to another provider if they have a religious objection to treating them, a move critics say opens the door for discrimination against gays and lesbians.

The rule will allow counselors and therapists to refer a patient to someone else over sincerely held “ethical, moral or religious principles” but only after careful consideration and consultation, and only if the counselor is unable to effectively serve the client. It also says counselors cannot abandon someone who seeks assistance. It was proposed by the Board of Examiners in Counseling, which regulates 2,800 counselors and marriage and family therapists in the state.

Michael Loos, the board’s executive director, said the rule change was intended to help resolve complaints if a counselor refers someone away because of their beliefs. Counselors would not face sanctions for referring current or prospective patients, according to the rule change

“We’re going to be policing our own profession, making sure folks are doing what they’re supposed to be doing about those issues that intrude upon their ability to be with a client,” Loos told lawmakers.

Loos, who declined to comment after the meeting, has previously said the rule change was aimed in part head off Arkansas adopting a more far-reaching law like one recently enacted in Tennessee that allows counselors to refuse to treat patients based on the therapist’s religious or personal beliefs.

But Arkansas’ new rule is prompting similar criticism that it opens the door for counselors and therapists to refuse treating someone because of their personal beliefs. The American Counseling Association, which represents more than 56,000 professional counselors, said the move conflicts with its code of ethics.

“The ACA Code of Ethics clearly states the steps that should be taken before a client is referred to another counselor,” Rich Yep, the association’s chief executive officer, said in a statement. “This (rule) blatantly circumvents that process and opens the door for discrimination.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas and the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBT rights groups, have also opposed the rule change. Kendra Johnson, the Human Rights Campaign’s Arkansas director, said the rule could also have the unintended consequence of outing LGBT youth who are referred elsewhere under this rule.

“When you create measures like this, essentially you relegate people to second class citizenship,” Johnson said.

Loos has said the rule doesn’t absolve counselors from adhering to the association’s code of ethics, which says counselors shouldn’t refer patients elsewhere based solely on their own beliefs, values and principles.

The rule, which is set to take effect in 10 days, was approved without objections from the panel, which had endorsed the measure last month. The full Legislative Council, the Legislature’s main governing body when the House and Senate aren’t in session, had sent the rule back to the subcommittee after lawmakers raised questions about it. Tuesday’s vote counts as final approval since the full council isn’t meeting this month.

Democratic Rep. Clarke Tucker questioned the need for the change during Tuesday’s hearing, especially since current rules allow counselors to refer clients to someone else if they can’t effectively treat them.

“I just think, for the image of Arkansas, it makes it seem as though we create rules here that are going to unfriendly to members of the LGBT community and that’s problematic for the image of our state,” Tucker, who is not a member of the subcommittee, told reporters.

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