A Florida court dismissed criminal charges against a pastor for practicing psychology without a license.

Church Law and Tax2003-11-01


Key point 4-10. Every state strictly regulates the practice of both psychology and counseling. However, pastoral counseling within a church to members of the congregation does not constitute the unauthorized practice of either psychology or counseling. Clergy who establish counseling ministries outside of this limited context may be liable for the unauthorized practice of either psychology or counseling.
State Regulation of Psychologists and Counselors

* A Florida court dismissed criminal charges against a pastor for practicing psychology without a license. An undercover officer from the state attorney general’s office went to the home of an ordained minister pretending he was in need of counseling, and received counseling for which he paid a fee on several occasions. The state then charged the minister with practicing psychology without a license in violation of state law. The minister asked the court to dismiss the charges on the basis of the following exemption contained in the unauthorized practice of psychology statute:

No person shall be required to be licensed or provisionally licensed under this chapter who … is a rabbi, priest, minister, or member of the clergy of any religious denomination or sect when engaging in activities which are within the scope of the performance of his or her regular or specialized ministerial duties and for which no separate charge is made, or when such activities are performed, with or without charge, for or under the auspices or sponsorship, individually or in conjunction with others, of an established and legally cognizable church, denomination, or sect, and when the person rendering service remains accountable to the established authority thereof.

The minister presented documents to the court showing that he was an ordained minister with experience in counseling, that he worked with an established church, and was under the supervision of another ordained minister who knew that he was counseling patients. The minister also furnished an affidavit from his supervising minister showing that the church was recognized by the IRS and the state of Florida as a religious institution.

The state conceded that the minister was a member of the clergy, but asserted that he was guilty of practicing psychology without a license because he did not disclose to his patients that, as a member of the clergy, he was exempt from the licensing requirements. The court rejected the state’s claim as “utterly without merit” because the statute “does not require a minister to inform his patient of his status.”

Application. Every state prohibits the practice of psychology without a license. However, every state also exempts certain forms of pastoral counseling from this prohibition. Pastoral counseling of church members within the scope of a pastor’s employment generally is exempted under these laws. But counseling outside of this context may or may not be exempt, and it is important for ministers who engage in counseling (especially outside the context of a pastor-church relationship) to clearly understand the substance and application of the exemption of ministers. Friedman v. State, 825 So.2d 1063 (Fla. App. 2002).

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