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Are Ministers Always Exempt from State-Required Counseling Licenses?

A Florida appeals court’s decision offers a rare look at the elements necessary for a licensing exemption to apply.

Florida
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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.

A federal district court in Florida addressed the exemption of pastoral counselors from a state counselor licensure law. The case is particularly important for ministers to note because courts rarely offer guidance about how such exemptions do—or do not—apply to them.

A detective launches an investigation

After a detective with the local sheriff’s department received an anonymous complaint about a minister’s (the “plaintiff”) practice of mental health care without a medical license, the detective enlisted the help of a Florida Department of Health agent to launch a criminal investigation.

That agent met with the plaintiff for two sessions in an undercover capacity. The detective thereafter applied for a warrant to search the plaintiff’s office. He based his search warrant application on the plaintiff’s alleged unlawful practice of psychology and marriage counseling without a state-issued license. The search culminated with an initial arrest of the plaintiff. Subsequent investigation, including interviews by prosecutors with the ministerial fellowship (“fellowship”) that the plaintiff claimed to serve under as a minister, resulted in additional charges against the plaintiff and two additional arrests.

Minister sues for false arrests and malicious prosecution

All 25 criminal charges against the plaintiff were ultimately abandoned, the reasons for which are unclear. The plaintiff then filed a civil lawsuit claiming false arrests and malicious prosecution. He named the detective, the sheriff’s department, the prosecutors, the Christian counseling association (“association”) related to the fellowship that he received training from, and the fellowship as co-defendants. The plaintiff claimed that the detective’s application for a search warrant “intentionally or recklessly omitted” any reference to the “Christian counselor exemption.” He also claimed his assertion of the exemption was overlooked by prosecutors, based at least in part on “false” statements about his credentials and status made by the fellowship’s president before the additional charges were filed.

The plaintiff had no medical training, and he had no license to provide mental health care as a psychologist or therapist in the medical sense. Instead, the plaintiff asserted he was trained by the association and referred by it to its related fellowship for ministerial sponsorship, which thus made him eligible for the following clergy exception under Florida’s counseling license requirement:

No provision of this chapter shall be construed to limit the performance of activities of a rabbi, priest, minister, or member of the clergy of any religious denomination or sect, or use of the terms “Christian counselor” or “Christian clinical counselor” when the activities are within the scope of the performance of his or her regular or specialized ministerial duties and no compensation is received by him or her, or when such activities are performed, with or without compensation, by a person 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 plaintiff claimed he was a licensed minister

A state appeals court reviewing the plaintiff’s claims noted that the state had alleged that there was no evidence that the plaintiff served as a church pastor in the regular understanding of the term, nor did the plaintiff report membership in a denomination. His ministerial credentials instead were through the fellowship. Further:

The Plaintiff did not say where he went to divinity or theological school. The Plaintiff reports only Christian counseling education. He reports Master’s and doctorate level degrees in the Christian counseling field from [a religious university]. The Plaintiff reports Christian counselor training through the [association]. He describes a very wide range of therapeutic subjects taught by the [association]. They include Integrated Marriage and Family Therapy, Child and Adolescent Therapy, Substance Abuse and Addiction Therapy, Sexual Therapy, Death and Grief Therapy, Crisis and Abuse Therapy, Domestic Violence and Intervention Therapy, and Group Therapy. He asserts that the [association]has given him board certification in the areas of Temperament Therapist, Crisis and Abuse Therapy, Integrated Marriage and Family Therapy, and Group Therapy. Thirdly he asserts that the [association]has given him advanced board certification in the areas of Death and Grief Therapy, Child and Adolescent Therapy, Substance Abuse and Addiction Therapy, and Group Therapy.

The plaintiff claimed the association referred him to the fellowship, where he is a licensed minister who is permitted to perform all clerical and religious functions. The plaintiff argued “he paid dues to the [fellowship], and that his minister’s license was up to date at the time of the criminal investigation.”

The state appeals court dismissed all but one claim brought by the plaintiff against the detective. The court dismissed the claims brought against the assistant state attorney and the sheriff’s department. However, the court allowed the plaintiff to pursue certain claims against the association and fellowship, due to “a sufficient degree of interconnectedness between” the association and fellowship and the detective and prosecutors. The court highlighted the plaintiff’s assertion that the association and fellowship “work hand in hand to train, license and sponsor individuals interested in pursuing Christian counseling” as a reason why the litigation could continue against both.

What this means for churches

This case is important, not because the lawsuits were allowed to proceed against the association and fellowship, although that outcome is also notable. Rather, the case is important because it is one of the few decisions on record addressing the exemption of pastoral counseling from state licensure laws.

All states regulate the practice of psychology, counseling, and related practices. But pastoral counseling is exempt from licensure under such laws so long as specified conditions are met. As this case illustrates, those conditions under Florida law (quoted above) include:

  • No provision of this chapter shall be construed to limit the performance of activities of a rabbi, priest, minister, or member of the clergy of any religious denomination or sect, or use of the terms “Christian counselor” or “Christian clinical counselor” when the activities are within the scope of the performance of his or her regular or specialized ministerial duties;
  • No compensation is received by him or her; or
  • When such activities are performed, with or without compensation, by a person for or under the auspices . . . of an established and legally cognizable church, denomination, or sect, and the person rendering service remains accountable to the established authority thereof.

Ministers who engage in counseling should be familiar with the conditions that apply to the pastoral counseling exemption under state law. Ruperto v. Snyder, 2019 WL 4146434 (Fla. App. 2019).

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  • February 23, 2021

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