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Censored Christian Counselor Asks SCOTUS to Hear His Case

ADF is asking the Supreme Court to hear the case of Brian Tingley, a licensed marriage and family counselor who was censored by a Washington state law.
Cody Barnett
Written by
Counselor Brian Tingley is seen sitting at his desk

Brian Tingley has been helping people for over two decades. As a licensed counselor, he speaks with clients from all walks of life, helping them achieve the goals they set for themselves.

After receiving his master’s degree in marriage and family therapy from Seattle Pacific University in 2001, Brian began his work as a counselor. Based in Fircrest, Washington, he has maintained his own practice since 2002.

Brian helps people talk through a variety of issues, including family and marital conflicts, depression, anger, and stress management. In some cases, Brian works with people who are seeking to become more comfortable with their sex or who wish to reduce unwanted same-sex attraction.

Washington state is trying to censor those free and open conversations between counselors and clients, prohibiting counselors like Brian from helping clients achieve the goals they set for themselves. That’s unconstitutional, and it’s why Alliance Defending Freedom is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to hear Brian’s case.


What does Washington’s law do?

Brian works with only those clients who choose to seek counseling from him. Even if clients come to him through a recommendation from a parent or a church, he will not continue counseling them unless they decide they want him to.

Clients set their own goals when talking with Brian, and he only works toward the goals that his clients have set for themselves. Those seeking to become comfortable with their sex or reduce unwanted attractions are doing so on their own accord.

But a Washington state law censors certain conversations between counselors and their clients who are under 18. The law prohibits Brian from speaking to his younger clients about some of their goals. Specifically, it bars him from discussing topics related to gender, sexual orientation, sexual behaviors, or gender identity that are not in line with the state’s radical views.

The law clearly restricts Brian’s speech, but that’s not all. It also prohibits Brian from providing counseling consistent with both his beliefs and those of his clients. Many of Brian’s clients share his faith, and they value his counsel about issues of sexuality and family from a perspective consistent with that faith.

Washington’s law seeks to shut down those conversations. But the law doesn’t stop Brian from promoting the government’s beliefs about gender and sexuality. In fact, it says that counseling which encourages “exploration and development” is perfectly acceptable, and it even allows counselors to guide minors toward treatments and procedures that could permanently sterilize them. But if Brian chooses to help clients toward their own goals of becoming comfortable with their biology, the state can fine him up to $5,000 per violation and can even revoke his license.

The government has no right to censor pure speech by deciding which side of an issue can be talked about. Additionally, it has no right to pry into conversations between counselors and clients who voluntarily seek their help.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit inexplicably ruled that Washington’s law did not regulate Brian’s speech. It claimed the law only regulated “conduct,” not speech.


The Supreme Court can protect Brian Tingley’s free speech

But Brian’s “conduct” is listening and talking—conversation. He does nothing more than speak with his clients when he is working with them, and the government is trying to tell him what he can or cannot say in those conversations. Brian’s work is speech, which is explicitly protected by the First Amendment.

In Brian’s case (Tingley v. Ferguson), the 9th Circuit relied on a previous decision it issued in Pickup v. Brown. In that decision, the court said that “professional speech,” including conversations between counselors and clients, receives less protection under the First Amendment than other types of speech.

The U.S. Supreme Court promptly rejected this logic in NIFLA v. Becerra when it ruled that speech is “not unprotected merely because it is uttered by ‘professionals.’” The High Court even criticized the Pickup decision by name.

The 9th Circuit tried to get around this problem in its Tingley ruling by claiming that Brian’s conversations with his clients constitute “professional conduct” and only “incidentally involve speech.” Of course, this is categorically false: Brian’s conversations with his clients involve speech and speech alone.

Despite the 9th Circuit’s attempts to justify Washington’s law using its own flawed precedent, the fact is that the law censors Brian’s speech, and it does so based on his beliefs. ADF is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to acknowledge this fact and strike down the law.

The First Amendment prohibits the government from censoring speech simply because the government disagrees with the content. This draconian law does just that, and the Court must not allow it to stand.

Cody Barnett
Cody Barnett
Legal Counsel
Cody Barnett serves as legal counsel on Alliance Defending Freedom’s Appellate Advocacy Team, where he represents various ADF clients before appellate courts across the country.