Dear Politicians: Counselors Serve All Who Seek Their Services

The American Counseling Association has published a Code of Ethics for years, and it was recently updated in 2014 (http://www.counseling.org/knowledge-center/ethics).

On the subject of providing services to clients, and when it is ethical to terminate with a client, the Code has been clear that the rights and needs of the client, not the values or attitudes of the counselor, must be paramount. The only situation in which it is ethically appropriate to terminate services, or decline to provide services to a client, is when the counselor does not have the necessary experience or training to address the client’s situation or issue. The Code states:

A.11.b. Values Within Termination and Referral

Counselors refrain from referring prospective and current clients based solely on the counselor’s personally held values, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. Counselors respect the diversity of clients and seek training in areas in which they are at risk of imposing their values onto clients, especially when the counselor’s values are inconsistent with the client’s goals or are discriminatory in nature.

This section of the Ethical Code is clear, particularly as applied to a counselor’s possible personal views on LGBTQ issues. We must respect our clients’ autonomy and support their identity, whether it is straight, lesbian, gay, trans*, or bisexual. Anything less would disrespect their autonomy and would fail to fulfill our responsibility to offer our clients support and empowerment. This is especially crucial in the case of young people, who may be suffering from bullying, hate, and discrimination even as their identity is undergoing the crucial development from adolescence into adulthood.

Recently, as we have been reading, a number of state legislatures have introduced (and some have passed) so-called “religious freedom” bills that try to protect individuals from being accused of – or penalized for – discrimination, when their “sincerely held religious beliefs” include disapproving attitudes about LGBT people based on their “lifestyle,” their “behavior choices,” and their “goals” (such as marriage equality).

The majority of the people working (usually somewhat behind the scenes) to craft legislation and push legislators to pass these bills are the same groups (such as the ADF (Alliance Defense Fund/Alliance Defending Freedom) who were involved in the lawsuits filed against counseling programs several years ago – including the Julea Ward case (Ward v. Wilbanks) in Michigan (about which I have written previously). So it is not too surprising that the law that was recently passed by the Tennessee legislature (HB 1840) specifically targeted professional counselors. It was also designed to attack the revisions in the ACA Code of Ethics that addressed the issue of counselors who refuse to provide services to clients based on the counselors having values and beliefs that are offended by the fact that their clients may be LGBT persons.

In this interview, the president of the Tennessee Counseling Association tries to explain the profession’s opposition to this recent bill (HB 1840) that was passed by the state legislature and is currently awaiting action by their governor. She attempts to refute the flawed but slick arguments of a spokesman for one of the organizations (“F.A.C.T.”) that was behind this bill and others like it.

Interview by CNN on Tennessee HB1840

The main fallacy in what he argues (using the example put forth by the interviewer) is that a young boy in conflict about coming out as gay is somehow “pursuing a goal or plan” that conflicts with the purported “strongly held beliefs” of the counselor. So he is saying that being gay is a “goal” that someone chooses to pursue, as opposed to an identity that the young man may find himself struggling to deal with in the face of society’s prejudices (including this guy’s, I might add).

Incidentally, you might notice that the ACA Code of Ethics uses the phrase, “…the client’s goals,” and so do the promoters of these laws. This is a very interesting bit of twisting language. The ACA intent (from my reading) was to support the idea of the client’s goals  for counseling, such as helping the client to feel self-acceptance and comfort with her/his identity. The “religious freedom” crowd, in contrast, puts forth the idea of “goals” as including simply being LGBT (or, as they like to put it, “practicing the homosexual lifestyle”); which they believe would offend some counselors’ values.

Similarly, the ACA (in explaining this section to its members) uses the term “bracketing” (of the counselor’s personal values). They use this term to mean that a counselor must set aside his or her own values when those values would lead to discrimination or an attempt to impose those values on the client. F.A.C.T. (in a separate blog entry) uses the term “bracketing” in a disparaging way, as if the counselor’s values or beliefs are being infringed upon or the counselor is being oppressed. They add (without any evidence to support the assertion) that “…A counselor ‘bracketing’ their values is much less likely to adequately treat a client than one who fully supports and personally believes in the client’s desired outcome.” Again, the use of “desired outcome” contains implicit assumptions with which the counseling profession might not agree. If the “desired outcome” is for the client to overcome self-hatred or fear of social disapproval that is threatening the client’s basic well-being and happiness, no counselor would be able to disagree with these “desired outcomes” and still call themselves a counselor. The only disagreement that a supposed “sincere” counselor could have with this would be to believe that the client should feel guilty and ashamed of being homosexual, and seek to no longer be so. As we have seen with the sad history of attempts at so-called “reparative therapy,” this outcome is neither realistic nor does it serve any socially useful purpose outside of a fundamentalist sectarian subculture (and, I might add, one that has an interpretation of Scripture that is by no means agreed-upon even by people who share most other tenets of the religion).

This usage misses the point that the practice of counseling is built upon acceptance of our clients as persons, even when we might disapprove of some of their actions. Despite the decades that the religious conservative anti-LGBT sector has spent hammering away at their “Love the sinner, hate the sin” message, it continues to fail. Purporting to “accept” a client as a generic person, without accepting her or his sexual orientation, or its expression in a major sphere of life (the love task), is hypocritical, judgmental, and disingenuous.

This man recycles the tired argument that if people believe that being homosexual is a wrong choice in life, that should exempt them from all prohibitions against discrimination. Finally, (and most disrespectfully toward counselors), he suggests that a counselor who believes that being gay is a “choice” or a “behavior” that is not in [the client’s] “best interests” (as the counselor may judge this) will be unable to provide good services to that client …because the counselor will somehow betray their attitude by “crossing their arms” or some other non-verbal message. My position as a counselor educator is that such a person should not be practicing the profession of counseling with the public, until and unless he or she can learn not to be judgmental in a way that would be evident to the individuals that he or she is claiming to help.

The other point he gets wrong is his claim that the ACA Code of Ethics was changed to eliminate the option of referring the client to someone else. It was not… It was clarified that counselors may only make referrals based on a gap in skill or competence, and not solely on the basis of their own personal values or beliefs. The current Code also states (as the previous Code stated) that counselors may not attempt to impose their values on their clients. Making a referral in that situation is, in fact, imposing one’s values on one’s clients. Both the counselor and the lobbyist agree that not being able to competently serve the client is a valid reason for making a referral, but counselors would argue that if a person’s beliefs are such that they can render him or her unable to practice competently simply because of a values disagreement, that person should not be practicing as a counselor.

I am on the Ethics Committee of the Illinois Counseling Association, and these laws are only one of the challenges we face in our effort to help professional counselors adhere to the highest ethical standards and serve our clients as well as we can. The politicization of our professional ethics by groups such as ADF and F.A.C.T. do nothing to help the public and serve to interfere with the profession of counseling. Like laws that criminalize doctors if they ask their patients or their parents about the presence of guns in the home, this is a curious example of Big Brother tactics – local politicians telling highly trained licensed professionals how to do their jobs – from those who claim to be in favor of “small government.”

 
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