Religious freedom issues have found their way into the headlines quite a lot lately, and the news is nearly always bad. “Gov. Mike Pence signs ‘religious freedom’ bill in private” quickly followed by “Gov. Mike Pence signs RFRA fix.” “Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer vetoes Senate Bill 1062.” “Nathan Deal vetoes Georgia’s ‘religious liberty’ bill.” “How the Atlanta Fire Chief’s Christian Views Cost Him His Job.” “‘Sweet Cakes’ Owners’ Bank Accounts Seized as Damages for Refusing to Bake Wedding Cake for Lesbian Couple.”
Victories for the religious conscience are few and far between. A lot has happened since Hobby Lobby v. Burwell, the Supreme Court decision that protects Hobby Lobby from having to pay for employee birth control and abortifacients.
In such an atmosphere, Tennessee’s House Bill 1840 comes as a breath of fresh air. Signed by Gov. Bill Haslam this past Wednesday, the new law protects counselors who want to practice without violating their consciences. It stipulates that counselors can refuse services to a client if they feel providing services will violate their sincerely held beliefs.
Significantly, this doesn’t apply in cases of imminent risk of homicide, suicide, or self-harm. Also, the objecting counselor has to take steps to refer the client elsewhere. But they can do so knowing they won’t be sued, charged with a crime, or penalized for exercising their First Amendment rights.
Confessions of a Conservative Counselor
To a religious conservative social worker like myself, these are glad tidings indeed. There’s more of us than you might think. But still I find my perspective is alien to both the Right and Left. So allow me to introduce myself.
I’m a long-time Christian and recently baptized Catholic, and I consider my faith my highest priority. It can’t be confined to four walls and some stained glass windows on a Sunday morning. It can’t be separated from my professional life. It can’t be separated from anything. It’s what motivates me in my practice.
I think Jesus meant it when he said, “As ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” I believe our highest purpose in life is to serve others in whatever capacity we can, and to support one another in carrying our separate crosses. These convictions keep me going in work that can be difficult, time-consuming, emotionally taxing, underpaid, and often thankless.
I also follow traditional Christian teachings on human behavior, specifically sex and marriage. I believe sex should be limited to marriage, marriage consists of one man and one woman, and our anatomy dictates our gender. For me, these aren’t arbitrary commandments delivered from a disembodied voice in the sky. Nor do they represent a dead code from an ancient text. Rather, they’re living and objective truths, written by God into our very nature and borne out by human experience, empirical data, and philosophical reasoning. If we follow these principles, we will experience greater health and well-being both individually and collectively.
How do these latter beliefs influence my practice as a therapist? To the outside observer, probably not at all. I don’t preach to my clients, and I go in knowing I’ll be dealing with people who lead troubled and sinful lives, as mine has been at times. My role is to support them, help them find greater hope and clarity, and navigate with them through confusion and suffering to a more peaceful state of life. I can do that without ever uttering an “Amen” in their presence, although I pray for them often on my own time.
God’s love doesn’t stop where LGBT starts. I’ve worked with plenty of these folks without any conflict arising. I’ve listened to their troubles, given them tools to battle anxiety and depression, guided them in parenting their children more effectively, and helped with other challenges. These encounters have been positive and mutually supportive. I’ve had no cause to share my own beliefs with them, and neither condoned nor condemned their preferences. As any decent counselor knows, caring and empathy do not equal affirmation.
Conflicts of the Counselor’s Conscience
As it happens, the new Tennessee law wouldn’t protect me from working with the LGBT population, even if that were my goal. It doesn’t allow counselors to deny services based on a client’s identity, but rather “as to goals, outcomes, or behaviors that conflict.” In other words, it’s not about who you are, but rather what you want to accomplish.
I’ll gladly work with anyone who goes by gay, lesbian, or transgender, ethnic Albanian, deaf, bilingual, introvert, heroin addict, divorcee, Southerner, Seahawks fan, metalhead, lover of Will Ferrell movies, or any other label he or she might choose. None of that affects my overall mission, and they’re all worthy of whatever help I might have to offer them.
Here’s what I fear. I don’t want the law to coerce me to assist a confused teenage boy in trying to live as a girl, aiding and abetting a falsehood that I believe will damage his present and future mental health. I don’t want to be forced to counsel two women in sustaining a romantic relationship that, in my view, ultimately harms both of them. I don’t want to have to help a pregnant teenage girl obtain an abortion. I don’t want to advise an unwed couple in how to achieve a more fulfilling sex life. I also don’t want to be driven out of my profession for declining all of the above.
Will a Counselor Who Disagrees With You Help Much?
Opponents of the Tennessee law will happily denounce this perspective as discrimination and bigotry. But I have to ask: Why would you want me to be forced to counsel people against my conscience? Who would benefit from such an arrangement? Wouldn’t my prospective client and I both lose?
I’ve recently stopped accepting referrals to work with young children. I love young children—just not counseling them. I don’t like the therapeutic approach of toys, games, and imaginative play, and I have colleagues who do, so I pass them along. That’s not bigotry. It’s called best practice. Why, then, would anyone want to require me to counsel in concerns outside of my sphere of moral comfort, proficiency, and interest?
I anticipate the responses. I’ve seen some colorful ones, but they boil down to: “Jesus would never deny help to someone who needed it! If that’s how you feel, then you shouldn’t be in this profession in the first place!” I could dispute that at length, on logical, professional, practical, or theological grounds. But let me instead opt for a personal appeal.
I’ve helped a lot of people in my still-young career. I know this because they’ve told me so. I’m still humbled, even a little mystified, every time a tearful client offers me a heartfelt thanks for having given him an hour to unburden himself. What have I really done for them, I think? All I did was listen. Then, with some sorrow, it dawns on me that they might never have had a patient, listening, and sympathetic ear. That’s all they needed, and nobody else was there. Then I feel blessed to have been able to provide this simple yet profound service. Anyone in my field should be familiar with this sensation.
I’ve helped children cope with abuse, addicts kick heroin, teenage girls stop cutting themselves, delinquent youth stay out of jail, couples mend their broken relationships, and suicidal people find reasons to live. I don’t say that to boast, nor do I claim any great professional ability or personal virtue because of it. I attribute most of my successes to “right person, right place, right time.” But I was the right person, in the right place, at the right time, to make a difference in someone’s life. I’ll do so again. I’ve also managed it, either in spite of or because of, my Christian convictions.
Would it be better if I’d kept my bigoted, hateful worldview out of the profession, and left these people without help? Should I get out of the field now, and prevent any good I might do in the future?
Another consideration: A great many of our clients are themselves religious, and often traditional Christians. Again, I don’t preach. But if clients are motivated by their belief in God or the Bible, I feel competent to use that as a point of connection, exploration, and insight. I’ve seen this have an impact. I’ve also seen atheist coworkers provide treatment for religious clients. They didn’t refer them elsewhere. Instead they nodded, smiled, then later ridiculed their beliefs behind their backs. Surely these people deserve better.
What’s in Your Conscience?
Although I’ve discussed my own Christian conscience here, the law doesn’t specify religious or LGBT issues at all. Rather, it was made to protect counselors’ “sincerely held beliefs.” Opponents claim the law is a thinly veiled effort to protect Christians with qualms about serving LGBT causes.
They’re right, of course, but also missing the point. LGBTs have proven a litigious people. Christians, whether they be bakers or photographers or counselors, feel embattled, and want their representatives to enact defensive measures. When we feel threatened, we’re prompted to protect ourselves. This is basic cause and effect, nothing sinister afoot.
But the principle applies to all. A wall built against the Gauls will serve just as well against the Goths or the Vandals. Let’s not forget the first Religious Freedom Restoration Act was passed in the 1990s by no less of a Bible-thumping conservative than President Bill Clinton, in an effort to protect Native Americans using peyote for religious rituals. Everyone should value freedom of conscience (provided they have a conscience, that is.)
The Tennessee law protects the progressive, the Muslim, or the vegan as much as the Catholic. Suppose you’re an atheist not comfortable with counseling a religious client striving to connect with God. You don’t have to. A proudly gay therapist could pass on someone whose goal is to overcome same-sex attraction. Are you a pacifist uneasy with advising a high school senior on a potential career in the military? Refer him on.
Five years ago, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton both favored traditional marriage. Until about yesterday, the idea of an anatomical male sharing a girls’ locker room seemed insane. Consider the possibility that a few years from now, something you sincerely believe will be classified as “on the wrong side of history.” If that day comes, take heart: you have a home in Tennessee.