State official staying home for good reason

The absence of Washington’s Secretary of State Kim Wyman and others from her staff from a national conference of secretaries of state this summer in Nashville, Tennessee, ordinarily would have gone unnoticed.

The Aug. 2 state primary falls shortly after the conference and Wyman’s office is busy updating its filing system for state corporations, among other tasks. So skipping the conference wouldn’t have surprised anyone.

Except that Wyman, a first-term Republican running for re-election this year, made it clear why she and others from her office won’t be going to Nashville: Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslams’s signing of legislation that allows mental health counselors to refuse treatment of patients based on the therapist’s personal beliefs. The law allows counselors to refuse patients whose backgrounds, including sexual or gender orientation, go against the therapist’s “sincerely held principles.”

Wyman further explained her decision Thursday on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered”: “Access to health care and certainly mental health care counseling when vulnerable people need it most is a high priority for the people I represent. And we have a real history and culture of inclusiveness.”

Many mental health professionals in Tennessee, including devout Christians, are opposed to the new law, but others say they are seeking the same sorts of protections that other states recently have granted to businesses, such as bakeries and florists, who say catering same-sex weddings goes against their religious beliefs.

A decision is expected soon from the Washington state Supreme Court in the case of Richland florist Barronelle Stutzman, who in 2013 refused to provide flowers for a gay couple’s wedding, citing her Christian beliefs, even though she considered one of the men a friend of hers. Stutzman was fined for violating the state’s anti-discrimination law, which was upheld by a Benton County judge. Stutzman appealed, and earlier this spring, the Supreme Court heard the case.

Stutzman clearly violated state law, but — as we have maintained previously — vendors of goods and services who would turn away customers for such petty and theologically weak reasons should suffer the economic consequences they have brought upon themselves. The business that same-sex couples and many others would have brought to those shops is better spent with vendors who desire and appreciate their business.

This, however, does not apply in matters of health, safety and public duty.

Last year when Rowan County, Kentucky, clerk Kim Davis refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, in defiance of a court order no less, she was in violation of her oath of office to uphold state and federal laws. If Davis believed that fulfilling that oath required her to go against her religious beliefs, she had the option of resigning her position.

The same option is open to those mental health counselors who feel they cannot serve, for example, a transgendered or gay or lesbian client. For many who seek counseling, particularly those in rural areas, being told to find another counselor is not a realistic option. Indeed, they might be better served by someone else, but a less-than-sympathetic counselor may be better than no counselor at all.

The American Counseling Association called the Tennessee legislation an attack on the association’s code of ethics to which its 60,000 counselors are expected to follow,the association said on its website. “It is also an unwanted and unnecessary blow to the counseling profession and those who benefit from the services of a professional counselor,” the association said.

If a mental health professional feels he or she is not up to the tasks outlined in the above code and is unable to sympathize and provide counsel to a patient, regardless of the patient’s gender identity or sexual orientation, then that counselor might need to reconsider his or her fitness to serve any patient.

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