Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) said in a nonbinding legal opinion Monday that the Texas Behavioral Health Executive Council cannot forbid social workers from discrimination on the bases of sexual orientation or disability.
The Texas Behavioral Health Executive Council (BHEC) is responsible for the regulation of behavioral health services and social work practice in the state. The council has been attempting to address questions over its code of conduct since October last year when it unanimously voted to reverse another unanimous decision that removed protections for LGBTQ and disabled clients made two weeks prior.
The board also voted to seek an opinion from Texas Attorney General’s office about the legality of its rule change. Months later, Paxton revealed that he believed that the board was authorized by the Legislature to punish social workers who refused work with clients based on aspects of identity like age, race and religion—but not their disability status, sexual orientation or gender identity. He argued that there are no higher authority for the board’s protections, given that state law does not prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
Paxton also appealed to the First Amendment rights and described “religious and philosophical objections to categories of sexual orientation,” as “protected views.”
Though legal opinions from the attorney general do not carry legal authority, the statewide LGBTQ organization Equality Texas said that even a nonbinding opinion from Paxton’s office could harm the fragile protections and would only legitimize “an opinion from an attorney general who has built his career in part on promoting discrimination against LGBTQ+ Texans.”
“We can attest that the October 12 vote and rule change did great harm to the mental health and wellbeing of many LGBTQ and disabled people across Texas,” Ricardo Martinez, CEO of Equality Texas, said in a statement. “A good faith analysis of this issue affirms what is clearly written into state statute: the BHEC has the power to set ethical standards for licensed social workers.”
Will Francis, executive director of the Texas chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, criticized Paxton for “[putting] political agenda in lieu of actually looking into the statutory obligations of the board.”
Francis emphasized that the code of conduct functioned to protect access to services, not First Amendment rights. “They have just opened the door for a social worker to discriminate based on disability, and nothing can be done about him from a licensing standpoint,” he warned. “That’s an incredibly, incredibly dangerous precedent to set.”