Kyle Pfannestiel

(Idaho Capital Sun) The Idaho Senate on Wednesday passed a bill that would let counselors and therapists refuse care that conflicts with their “sincerely held religious, moral, or ethical principles.”

The right to refuse service or facilitating service in Senate Bill 1352 would apply to “conscience-based objections to particular goals, outcomes, or behaviors that may be the objectives” of counseling or therapy.

Under the bill, counselors or therapists whose right to decline services is violated could seek injunctive or declaratory relief.

“In an environment where some counselors are being told that they must check their values at the door when they enter the profession, Senate Bill 1352 gives them the assurance that they can practice consistent with their values without fear of legal action or loss of licensure,” said Sen. Carl Bjerke, R-Coeur d’Alene.

The bill does not suggest or require care be terminated, Bjerke said. Counselors may continue to treat patients “in pursuit of other goals” that don’t violate their beliefs, he said. The bill wouldn’t let declining therapy be the basis for a civil cause of action, criminal prosecution or disciplinary action.

Idaho senators debate counseling bill on the floor

Sen. Melissa Wintrow, D-Boise, said she took issue with the bill not requiring that providers refer patients to other providers.

“This bill is basically allowing a counselor to get off the hook if they violate their ethics,” she said.

The bill heads to the Idaho House for consideration after passing the Idaho Senate on a 23-11 vote, with all seven Senate Democrats and four Republicans opposing.

Sen. Todd Lakey, R-Nampa, said the bill would let counselors acknowledge when they’re not the best fit for a specific patient.

Sen. Geoff Schroeder, R-Mountain Home, worried about situations the bill could create, especially in alcohol abuse or domestic violence issues. He listed hypothetical patient scenarios: What about getting a job that requires work on sabbath days? What about prescriptions for mind-altering substances?

“This is going to precipitate a ton of litigation, and actually make it more difficult for people to enter the profession,” said Schroeder, who voted against the bill.

Sen. Abby Lee, R-Fruitland, said she opposed the bill, but not because she doesn’t appreciate religious freedom.

“You already can refer someone. You can already choose not to work with them. … But what you cannot do is shame that individual on the way out after engaging in one of the most vulnerable conversations that people have,” Lee said.

Bjerke highlighted a hypothetical situation of a stressed out CEO talking to a therapist, who has decided that having an affair would improve his life and wants his counselor to validate that goal.

“If we want our counselors and therapists to be in a box of only really caring about fulfilling what the client wants, even against what might be good for that client, I think we’re asking the therapists to fit into some kind of box,” Bjerke said.

In that scenario, the therapist can choose to continue to treat the patient for stress and obsessive compulsive disorder, but not for his desire for an affair, he said. And the patient would be free to look for another counselor.

Sen. Linda Hartgen, R-Twin Falls, said counselors’ jobs aren’t to make people feel good about what they’re visiting them about.

“It’s to hear them talk and walk through their issues. They never would try to make … not a monogamous person feel good about the relationship. I think they would simply walk through it with them,” Hartgen said.