Preserving religious freedom in mental health profession

Credit: R. Scott Lloyd

In preserving religious freedom, Latter-day Saints in the counseling profession are at a “title of Liberty” moment, the Church’s general legal counsel declared June 15 in a speech during the third day of the LDS Family Services System-wide Seminar in Salt Lake City.

Elder Lance B. Wickman, emeritus General Authority Seventy, made the comment in allusion to the Book of Mormon incident in Alma 46, when Moroni, the chief commander of the Nephite armies, raised a banner to inspire the people to defend their religion, freedom, peace and families.

Speaking to an audience from several nations gathered at the Joseph Smith Memorial Building, Elder Wickman spoke of how religious freedom is being encroached upon in the field of mental health consultation.

“These threats are emerging threats,” he noted “They have not yet fully occupied the field, but they are real and they require men and women of faith to confront them squarely and to confront them now.”

He began by identifying some essential truths.

“Religious freedom is a basic principle of the gospel and a fundamental human right, a right essential to mortality’s central purpose of exercising our divinely granted moral agency to choose to accept Jesus Christ as our Savior and live His gospel,” he said.

“Religious liberty is the protected space in which that agency is nurtured and thrives,” he said, adding that for Latter-day Saints it allows the flourishing of faith that is central to their lives.

“That alone justifies the protection of religious liberty as a fundamental human right,” he remarked.

Quoting Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, he said robust freedom is not merely “negative freedom to be left alone” but a richer, positive freedom to live one’s religion or belief in a legal, political and social environment that is tolerant, respectful and accommodating of diverse beliefs.

“The current threats to religious freedom are very real, and growing rapidly across a range of areas in society,” Elder Wickman said. “Although the great majority of Americans are willing to let others believe and worship as they choose, the sphere for the free and open exercise of religion is shrinking as society grows more hostile to religion, especially organized religion.”

Generally speaking, he said, the biggest current threat to religion in the United States is the use of government powers to enforce secular values in every area that the government regulates or funds.

“Often the flashpoint is conflicting secular and religious beliefs regarding marriage, family, gender and sexuality,” he added. “Because government increasingly regulates or funds almost everything, this trend is deeply troubling. Sooner or later it will affect every person, profession and institution.

“That includes you as LDS mental health professionals who seek to help patients by drawing from the highest and best of both secular learning and revealed religion.”

The first threat he mentioned was “the ongoing campaign to roll back or outright repeal existing legal protections for the religious conscience of medical professionals, including mental-health professionals.”

“Conscience clauses” passed by states in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion protected the rights of professionals not to participate in abortions or sterilizations that violated their religious beliefs.

“But these vital protections and the important principles they embody are increasingly under attack,” Elder Wickman warned. “In 2008, the United Nations body wrote that it was ‘deeply concerned about the insufficient regulation of the exercise of conscientious objection by health professionals.’ It went on to recommend that nations take measures to limit or remove conscience clauses. It was not long before this call was heeded.”

For example, in 2011 the U.S Department of Health and Human Services rescinded a conscience clause that permitted medical professionals to refuse to provide contraceptive and other services that violate their sincerely held religious beliefs, Elder Wickman said. “It was replaced with a regulation that limits conscientious objections to abortion and sterilization.”

Last year, the state of Illinois substantially curtailed the state’s conscience-clause law, even for elective abortions, he added.

Elder Wickman said most states have no laws that expressly protect the right of mental-health counselors and therapists to refuse to provide services that conflict with their religious beliefs. In the current climate, it is increasingly unlikely states will pass such laws, he added.

For LDS professionals, handling client situations in a manner consistent with the gospel of Jesus Christ without running afoul of the law will likely become more difficult, he said.

The second threat Elder Wickman highlighted was new laws and regulations that require health-care professionals to provide services that violate their sincerely held religious beliefs.

For example, Catholic foster care and adoption services have been forced out of several major U.S. markets by laws that require all family-services agencies to place children with single parents and unmarried or same-sex couples, Elder Wickman said.

“A third and analogous threat arises from state licensing boards, ethics bodies and other professional gatekeepers that impose standards and practices that create powerful barriers to religious people entering various health-care professions,” he said. Some force existing practitioners to choose between continuing in their profession and living their religion.

“Government has a valid interest in reasonable regulations that protect patients from harm, but harm does not mean any therapy that contradicts secular ideologies about gender and sexuality,” Elder Wickman said.

“Appropriate counseling that helps youth understand sexual desires and keep them within the bounds of the law of chastity or that assists children in dealing with gender confusion consistent with the goals and beliefs of both patient and practitioner should not be banned for ideological reasons.”

Overcoming threats may depend upon “what you and others like you do within your own sphere of influence to preserve and promote religious freedom within the mental-health profession,” Elder Wickman said.

Some threats just emerging, although not imminent, warrant mention, he said. One is the notion that religious counselors and family-services professionals should be included in non-discrimination laws as “places of public accommodation,” as are travel, dining and lodging establishments. That would mean faith-based counselors would lose the ability to be selective in the clientele they accept.

“If too broad, such … legislation could even jeopardize LDS Family Services’ ability to require a bishop’s referral before providing services,” he said.

He cited instances of professionals being punished for private speech unrelated to their professional practice. A highly qualified physician who happened to be a lay preacher in a Seventh Day Adventist congregation was fired from his position as a district health director for the state of Georgia for statements he made while preaching from a pulpit at his church. State officials had reviewed YouTube recordings of his sermon, which included statements supporting Biblical teachings on sexual morality.

“At the end of the day, the biggest risk may not be governmental or legal at all, but social,” Elder Wickman observed. “Powerful coastal forces seek to characterize those with traditional beliefs as bigots. But bigotry is a two-way street.

“The risk is that traditional believers, including within the mental-health professions, could be penalized for their faith by cultural bigots seeking to shout down their traditional beliefs.”

He said the ultimate question is “whether you and others within your profession who share our values will stand up and speak up in response to such challenges when they come.”

All of that leads, he said, to what he identified as the most important part of his message.

“I came to encourage you and reassure you,” he said. “Like Captain Moroni and his followers, we must run toward these challenges, not away from them. Each of you has an important role to play in defending religious freedom.”

Constitutional rights, including First Amendment guarantees, were never intended to relieve people of their duties as citizens, he said.

“We have a duty to work with our fellow countrymen to find practical solutions to vexing problems, including clashes of rights and fundamentally competing interests.”

He suggested four principles:

One, become informed about religious freedom issues within one’s profession, and start by visiting the website

Two, speak up with courage and civility. “As you learn to articulate your position with kindness and conviction, you will find that discussions about religious freedom become less intimidating and more natural.”

Three, “as President [Dieter F.] Uchtdorf would say, lift where you stand. This is critical. You don’t need to run for congress or start a political movement. Just get involved in the political, community and especially professional organizations around you.”

Four, be an “ ‘example of the believers’ so that others will see your good works, experience your genuine friendship and be sympathetic toward your concerns.”

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