VA ACLU Voices Concerns About Genetic Counselor Licensure Law
Just two weeks after lawmakers adjourned in Richmond, Governor Terry McAuliffe has already signed hundreds of bills into law.
One seemingly simple measure is drawing fierce criticism this week from those who say it could encourage discrimination in the commonwealth.
Governor McAuliffe signed Senate Bill 330 Thursday. It requires genetic counselors to be licensed in order to practice in the state - but under the surface, the ACLU of Virginia believes it could lead to widespread discrimination.
Starting July 1, every genetic counselor in Virginia will have to be licensed to provide support to those with genetic disorders and hereditary conditions.
With only 95 genetic counselors in Virginia - according to an industry group - it seems like a pretty modest issue. But the ACLU of Virginia sees it differently.
“We don't have a stake in whether genetic counselors are licensed. Our concern is with the conscience clause provision,” said Frank Knaack, public policy director for ACLU of Virginia.
Knaack is referring to two sentences allowing counselors to refuse service if it "conflicts with their deeply-held moral or religious beliefs..."
It also protects counselors from potential blow-back or disciplinary action.
“It enables genetic counselors to use their personal religious beliefs to deny services to folks,” said Knaack.
The ACLU says counselors could use religion as an excuse to discriminate against gay and lesbian clients and those seeking abortions, among others.
“In this case, you're seeing others using their religious beliefs to actually harm others, versus something that would take away their ability to practice their faith,” said Knaack.
The governor's office stands by the law, saying it will help Virginians by establishing "new standards to hold genetic counselors accountable."
Critics don't disagree, but worry those standards could inadvertently usher in a new era of discrimination.
“It's really bringing us back to a place where we thought we had gotten away from in the 1950s and '60s,” said Knaack.
Statement from Rachel Thomas, spokeswoman for Governor Terry McAuliffe:
"SB330 requires genetic counselors to be licensed in order to practice in Virginia and establishes new standards to hold genetic counselors accountable through the licensure process and through the oversight of an Advisory Board on Genetic Counseling. For those reasons the Governor signed SB330."