(CN) — Advocates for LGBTQ and disability communities in Texas are urging state officials to reverse course on a recent policy change that could allow social workers to reject clients because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, or because they have a disability.
The change earlier this month reportedly removed certain nondiscrimination policies from a code of conduct that social workers in the Lone Star State have to abide by.
According to the Texas Tribune, a state regulatory board adopted the change after a request from Republican Governor Greg Abbott’s office, which in turn described the move as an effort to bring the code in line with changes to state law governing the profession.
Advocates, Democratic state lawmakers and social workers themselves have blasted that explanation, describing the move as explicitly discriminatory and particularly egregious given the timing.
“In the middle of a life-threatening, unprecedented pandemic, no one should have to jump through hoops to access care or to be turned away,” Ricardo Martinez, CEO of the advocacy group Equality Texas, said during a virtual press conference Friday.
“This move by the governor’s office sends a very damming message to LGBTQ people and people living with disabilities,” he added. “We should not be sending a message that people are not worthy of protection, full stop.”
Some critics have suggested the move by the Texas State Board of Social Worker Examiners could amount to a sort of test-run for similar changes when the Republican-dominated state legislature meets again in 2021. In 2017, the state’s Republican Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick led an ultimately unsuccessful campaign for a so-called “bathroom bill” that was roundly criticized by LGBTQ advocates as discriminatory against transgender people.
“I am now paranoid about whether further changes are coming,” said Freddie Avant, board president of the National Association of Social Workers’ Texas chapter.
Avant’s organization has also urged the state board to reverse course on the change, saying it flies in the face of the profession’s values and the organization’s own nationwide code of ethics.
“We cannot abandon the needy, the oppressed and those who are being disenfranchised,” he said.
Asked whether the governor and the social workers’ board should reverse course on the change, a representative with the conservative Christian group Texas Values replied “no.”
Jonathan Saenz, the group’s president, said it’s “expected” that a state agency or board would seek to align its rules with changes to state law.
“Federal rules are already in place to protect people with disabilities and sexual orientation and gender identity are not protected classes under any statute,” Saenz said. “LGBT advocates are playing political games with the public and it has to stop.”
A spokesperson for Governor Abbott did not immediately respond to questions about the change and whether the governor would reverse course.
Much of the outcry against the code of conduct change has centered on the fact that it was seemingly adopted with little public input or feedback from social workers themselves.
State Representative Sarah Davis, a Houston Democrat, argued that point in a letter this month to the board’s parent entity, the Texas Behavioral Health Executive Council.
In the letter, Davis claimed the board may have violated the state’s Open Meetings Act by not specifically indicating beforehand what kinds of changes to the code of conduct were up for discussion.
The executive council is set to take up the issue at a public meeting Tuesday, with an agenda item indicating the council could consider whether to pursue new nondiscrimination rules or “non-rulemaking actions that can be taken to preclude discrimination.”
So far, opponents of the change have not indicated they are considering any specific legal action.
“The fact that this rule change happened without adequate opportunity for public comment I think is very concerning,” Avery Belyeu, a regional director for the legal advocacy group Lambda Legal, said Friday when asked about the possibility of going to court.
“I’m also heartened by the fact that there’s an opportunity for public comment next week,” she said, “and hopefully this issue can be resolved through that opportunity for public comment and Texans rallying together to say that this is unacceptable.”