Critics urge Texas regulators to reverse decision allowing social workers to turn away clients who are LGBTQ or have a disability

Members of Austin's LGBTQ community gather on the steps of the state Capitol to celebrate the anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall riots on June 28, 2017. Credit: Austin Price for The Texas Tribune

Lawmakers and advocates on Friday railed against a Texas regulatory board’s decision to remove protections for LGBTQ people and those with disabilities who seek social work services and previewed a bipartisan bill they plan to file aimed at bolstering anti-discrimination protections.

Advocates called the move by the Texas State Board of Social Work Examiners, which has not yet been finalized, an attempt to create “two classes of Texans” during a press conference organized by the Texas chapter of the National Association of Social Workers.

“This flies in the face of everything that we’ve been taught, everything that we’ve been trained, everything that exists in our national code of conduct and our code of ethics,” said state Rep. Diego Bernal, D-San Antonio, who is also a social worker.

State Sen. Jose Menendez, D-San Antonio, urged the board to “fix the wrong that they’ve done” and said he was committed to working with other lawmakers to create statutory protections against discrimination.

“No one should be discriminated against just because of who they are and who they love,” Menendez said.

There is currently no law in Texas that protects LGBTQ people from discrimination. But lawmakers, including state Rep. Jessica González, D-Dallas, a member of the LGBTQ caucus, are planning to lead that effort during the 2021 legislative session, which begins in January.

“We need to maintain a safety net of protections of all Texans,” González said.

The social worker regulatory board unanimously voted last week to revise a section of its code of conduct that lays out when a social worker can refuse to serve someone. The code will no longer prohibit social workers from discriminating on the basis of a disability, sexual orientation or gender identity.

Gov. Greg Abbott’s office recommended the change, board members said, because the nondiscrimination protections went further than those laid out in state law.

The Behavioral Health Executive Council, which oversees the board, will hold a hearing on Oct. 27 and allow the public to comment on the change.

“This is a moment for all Texans to stand up and say that fairness and equality do matter,” said Avery Belyeu, south central regional director for Lambda Legal, a civil rights organization.

The change sparked national backlash, including from 11 members of Texas’ congressional delegation who called on Abbott and the board to reverse the decision.

“During a pandemic, enforcement and protection of non-discrimination rules should be stronger than ever, to ensure our most vulnerable Texans receive assistance during this unprecedented time,” the lawmakers wrote. “This rule change does the exact opposite.”