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.”