Psychologist Loses License for Religious Counseling

Patient was demon possessed, psychologist said.

Church Law and Tax 1996-03-01

Freedom of Religion

Key point. The state can never regulate a person’s religious beliefs. But, under some circumstances it can regulate conduct that is based on religious beliefs.

The New Hampshire Supreme Court upheld a state board’s permanent revocation of a psychologist’s license in part because of his use of religion in the course of counseling. A psychologist’s license was revoked by a state board on the basis of “grossly incompetent and plainly unprofessional conduct.” The board concluded that the psychologist’s continued practice posed a threat to the safety of future patients. The board’s decision was based in part on the following acts: the psychologist insisted that a patient was possessed by demons; the psychologist used treatment that included praying with this patient to renounce Satan; and, the psychologist told the patient that she had been raised in a house of demons. The psychologist sued the state board, claiming among other things that its decision to revoke his license infringed upon his constitutional right to freely exercise his religion. The state supreme court disagreed. It observed:

The state constitution prohibits the state from revoking [a psychologist’s] license for his religious views but does not prohibit revocation for acts that otherwise constitution unprofessional conduct, regardless of their religious character. There can be little doubt that it is unconstitutionally impermissible for the state to revoke a medical license on the basis of the holder’s religious views, however unorthodox they may be. But, the holder of a license cannot rely on [his] religious views to excuse failures to comply with state medical licensing requirements. The board explicitly stated that the proceedings pertained to [the psychologist’s] competency and professionalism under [state law] and were not an inquiry into the validity of his religious beliefs.

The court concluded that the state board’s decision to revoke the psychologist’s license did not violate his constitutional right to religious freedom since the board’s decision was based “not on his religious views but for his conduct in the treatment [of a patient].” Petition of Smith, 652 A.2d 154 (N.H. 1994). [ State Regulation of Psychologists and Counselors, The Free Exercise Clause]

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