LITTLE ROCK — A legislative panel on Tuesday endorsed a proposal that would allow a counselor in Arkansas to refer away a client because of the counselor’s personal beliefs — a proposal that critics fear could be used to justify discrimination.

LITTLE ROCK — A legislative panel on Tuesday endorsed a proposal that would allow a counselor in Arkansas to refer away a client because of the counselor’s personal beliefs — a proposal that critics fear could be used to justify discrimination.


The Administrative Rules and Regulations Subcommittee of the Arkansas Legislative Council also endorsed proposed abortion regulations substituting the term "unborn child" for "fetus."


The subcommittee advanced a proposed change to the state code of ethics for counselors and therapists that would prohibit a counselor or therapist from being sanctioned for transferring a current or potential client to another provider because of sincerely held "ethical, moral or religious principles."


The transfer could occur only after careful consideration and consultation, and the counselor or therapist could not abandon a patient, the proposal states.


The change was proposed by the state Board of Examiners in Counseling. Michael Loos, the board’s executive director, told reporters the idea is to ensure that counselors and therapists take "a good look at themselves, a good look at the situation" before referring clients because of values and belief systems that make it difficult for them to provide treatment to those clients.


The American Counseling Association’s code of ethics states that a counselor cannot refer a client based solely on personal beliefs. The Tennessee Legislature has passed a law in reaction to that code stating that counselors in that state can refer clients away because of the counselors’ beliefs.


Loos said the proposed Arkansas rule would allow the Board of Examiners in Counseling to decide whether a counselor has done "due diligence" before referring a patient. Letting the board oversee referrals is preferable to passing a blanket law allowing the referrals, as Tennessee did, he said.


"We don’t need to leave it up to state laws to make those decisions," he said.


Rita Sklar, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas, said in an interview the proposed change to the code of ethics "essentially gives a license to discriminate in the name of religion, and I think that people may see it as a green light to go ahead and not take any patient that they object to for some reason."


"I’m particularly worried about school counselors not wanting to talk to, say, a suicidal gay student having trouble with his sexual orientation," she said. "That is a very serious problem. Kids commit suicide because they are struggling with their sexual orientation, and I would just hate to see any delay in the health care of a person in need."


The subcommittee also endorsed abortion regulations proposed by the state Medical Board to comply with state laws that were passed last year.


The subcommittee previously discussed the regulations in January, but at that time some members voiced concerns about the use of the term "fetus" instead of "unborn child," the latter term being the one used in the legislation. The Medical Board had decided in December to use the term "fetus" in the regulations, but it later switched to the term "unborn child" in response to the legislators’ concerns.


The rules and regulations endorsed by the subcommittee go next to the Legislative Council, which is scheduled to meet Friday.