Monday July 5, 2010

Stalemate after Nebraska Health Board Rejects Conscience Compromise for Christian Psychologists

By James Tillman

Updated 9:34am EST 7.6.10

LINCOLN, Nebraska, July 5, 2010 ( — Defying the recommendations of Nebraska’s top public health authority, the Nebraska Mental Health Practice Board has approved rules that could force Christian psychologists to refer clients with same-sex attraction seeking relationship therapy to professionals that support homosexuality. However, the chief medical officer has said she would not approve the new rules until a compromise is reached.

While still allowing psychologists to decline to offer services, the board followed the state Board of Psychology in rejecting a rules change that would allow psychologists not to refer clients to counseling encouraging immoral behavior.

Jim Cunningham, executive director of the Nebraska Catholic Conference (NCC), has maintained that it would be morally objectionable for a Catholic counselor to make such a referral.

“Our concern had to do with services that we would not be able to provide because they would promote or enhance or validate conduct that is contrary to our religious beliefs,” NCC’s Cunningham said. The NCC has also asked for conscience protection for for licensed counselors, social workers and marriage and family therapists.

But the issue has aroused stiff controversy within the Nebraska government: Chief Medical Officer Dr. Joann Schaefer has repeatedly stated that the needs of clients with same-sex attraction and the consciences of Catholic physicians may both be satisfied by a compromise, despite reluctance on the part of state licensing boards to consider one.

Until Schaefer approves the regulations, they cannot take affect, and Schaefer has promised to delay approval until a compromise is reached.

According to Schaefer, when a party claims that a regulation “is infringing upon our rights or certain parts of our business, or our freedoms,” Nebraska’s Health and Human Services department always seeks a compromise.

“At that point we are forced to try to accommodate and make our regulations better,” she said. “This is a large contingency saying that this rule is infringing on their religious freedom. It is a big deal.”

Schaefer’s compromise solution would allow counselors to refer patients using general criteria, rather than requiring them to guide clients to specific practitioners, a plan for which the NCC has signaled approval.

The Board of Health approved new rule changes last month, that did not include Schaefer’s compromise, by a 12-1 vote. The Board of Psychology has voted multiple times to reject Schaefer’s proposed fix.

Objectors to the compromise say psychologists are required to refer patients to psychologists willing to give the treatment the patient wants. “I would argue you have the ethical obligation to find them an appropriate resource,” said Dr. Tracy Todd, with the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists.

But others say such assertions are absurd.

“It is stunning many do not understand why making a referral for a procedure or service considered immoral is itself immoral,” wrote Father Christopher Kubat, executive director of Catholic Social Services in southern Nebraska.

He notes that similar conflicts arise in situations surrounding abortion, euthanasia, physician-assisted suicide, the morning-after pill, RU-486, and contraception.

“They want and are determined to force a counselor, mental health professional or psychologist to provide a service that violates their consciences, or to make a referral to someone else for the said service, which also would violate their consciences, despite the fact the solution proposed by Schaefer guarantees a referral while avoiding client abandonment,” he wrote.

There is no deadline for Schaefer’s decision on what to do with the proposals sent to her. If she approves them, they come into effect after the Nebraska attorney general and governor approve them.

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