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Supreme Court of the United States

When the Government Sits in on Private Therapy Sessions

September 29, 2021

Therapists often develop strong, trusting relationships with their clients as they discuss the client’s personal thoughts, feelings, and experiences in a confidential setting.

But imagine sitting down in your therapist's office for your monthly appointment. Over the years, you've grown to trust your therapist and have gradually opened up more and more.

This appointment is different. Today, there's a third person in the room. It's a representative of the state government. Reluctantly, you start talking with your therapist. But every time the conversation turns to a particular topic, this representative interrupts, declaring, “This conversation is prohibited!” And all that trust that you've built with your therapist over the years is suddenly on very thin ice.

This might seem like a radical hypothetical. However, this is essentially what a state law in Washington allows. Under the law, the government is permitted to intrude on confidential therapy sessions and dictate what therapists and clients can discuss.

As you can imagine, this didn’t sit well with one therapist, who is challenging that law in court. Let’s take a deeper look at his case.

Who: Brian Tingley

Brian Tingley has been a marriage and family therapist for over 20 years in the state of Washington. He counsels married couples, individual adults, teens, and families through the struggles they are facing in their relationships and lives. Brian cares deeply about his clients and wishes to help them in any way he can.

Brian is diligent in helping his clients achieve goals they personally set for themselves. He carefully listens and reasons with his clients, providing feedback and guidance.

Like many of his clients, Brian is a Christian. And his Christian beliefs inform his understanding of human nature. But Brian never tries to force his own beliefs on his clients.

What: Tingley v. Ferguson

In 2018, Washington passed a law that allows government officials to decide what can be said within the confidential conversations between therapists and their clients.

Under the Washington law, Brian can’t mention or discuss anything related to gender, sexual orientation, sexual behaviors, or gender identity that is not in line with the State’s views.

If he does—even if it relates to a goal that the client set for himself—Brian would face fines up to $5,000 per violation, and even permanent loss of his license–loss of his ability to support his family.

Brian knew this law wasn’t right, and it wasn’t in the best interest of his clients. So, he decided to take a stand. And he reached out to Alliance Defending Freedom for help.

When: May 2021 - Present

In May 2021, ADF filed a lawsuit against the State of Washington on Brian’s behalf. The district court dismissed Brian’s case, but as with so many important constitutional cases, that’s just the first round; now, Brian, represented by ADF, has appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Where: Washington State

Brian has been practicing as a therapist in Washington for over 20 years, and he is challenging a Washington state law.

Why: The Government Can’t Censor Viewpoints It Doesn’t Like

For government officials to insert themselves into confidential therapy sessions and determine what goals therapists and their clients can and can’t pursue, and what topics they can discuss, is a radical violation of free speech and religious freedom. It’s the client’s choice to pursue a specific goal through counseling, not the government’s. Similarly, it’s up to Brian on how to best help his clients achieve their counseling goals during their sessions, and the government has no business telling Brian what topics he can and cannot discuss during these sessions.

The Bottom Line

All people have the right to free speech whether in a public environment or in a private counseling session. The government has no right to decide what people can discuss in their own private conversations, and it certainly doesn’t belong in a counselor’s office.

Alliance Defending Freedom

Alliance Defending Freedom

Non-profit organization

Alliance Defending Freedom advocates for your right to freely live out your faith

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