News Release: Catholic Conference Raises Concerns Over Broad Language in Bills Restricting Counselors’ Speech

Despite intent, language in bills would open the door for targeting of religious professionals

A young girl in a session with her therapist

July 7, 2023

(Lansing, Mich.) — Two bills recently approved by the Michigan Legislature that restrict speech in counselor-patient settings should be rejected by Gov. Whitmer on the grounds that the language is too broad and goes well beyond its intended purpose, Michigan Catholic Conference (MCC) said today.

According to House Bills 4616 and 4617, mental health professionals would be banned from using “any practice or treatment” that “seeks to change an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity.” The prohibition applies to minor patients only and bans “efforts to change behavior or gender expression or to reduce or eliminate sexual or romantic attractions or feelings toward an individual of the same gender.”

The legislation goes on to state that “a mental health professional who violates this section is subject to disciplinary action and licensing sanctions.”

“The language in these bills pose an unnecessary threat to professional counselors who meet clients where they are and listen and respond appropriately to shared thoughts and feelings, which lies at the very heart of the therapist/patient relationship,” said Kyle Rambo, Executive Director of Catholic Social Services of the Upper Peninsula, a ministry of the Catholic Diocese of Marquette. The organization provides behavioral health counseling to residents of the state in the areas of individual therapy, marriage counseling, family counseling, and grief counseling.

Though the intent of the legislation may be to protect children from inappropriate or coercive practices in a counseling setting, the specific language in House Bills 4616 and 4617 would also restrict talk therapy by banning “any practice or treatment,” thus creating free speech restrictions that may well be unconstitutional. Catholic mental health professionals have also raised concerns that the legislation removes safe therapeutic environment protocols that many patients and therapists develop in order to reach goals that clients want to achieve in their treatment plan.

“The limitations on speech present in these bills not only raise concerns over constitutional rights, they also restrict counselors and their minor patients from having — even at the patient’s request — an open discussion about his or her particular situation,” said Rambo.

Michigan Catholic Conference, as the official public policy voice of the Catholic Church in the state, speaks on behalf of the Catholic Charities and Catholic social service agencies located in Catholic dioceses in Michigan. Motivated by their deeply held religious beliefs to serve others, Catholic agencies and their staff deliver a variety of community-based social services, especially for poor and low-income families, including behavioral and mental health counseling. Catholic professional therapists treat all clients with dignity and respect, engaging each client where they are, while helping them to a place of peace and understanding for his or herself.

“Licensed mental health therapists should not have to run from their professional obligations to a patient due to threat of discipline or licensing sanction if a patient wishes to discuss sexuality or gender issues in a counseling session,” said Rebecca Mastee, J.D., policy advocate for MCC. “The wording of the bills go well beyond the intent, allowing for faith-based therapists to be targeted and silenced for their beliefs about the nature of the human person and the differences between male and female. We encourage the governor to veto these bills and call on the legislature to develop clear legislation to protect patients without prohibiting speech or banning therapy discussion.”

House Bills 4616 and 4617 passed both the Michigan House of Representatives and the state Senate on a mostly partisan basis. The legislation will soon be presented to Gov. Whitmer for her consideration.

Michigan Catholic Conference is the official public policy voice of the Catholic Church in this state.

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