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AUSTIN, Texas — Texas officials are facing backlash after deciding to allow social workers to turn away clients on the basis of their disability, sexual orientation or gender identity.

At the direction of the governor’s office, the Texas State Board of Social Work Examiners voted unanimously to eliminate disability, sexual orientation and gender identity from the nondiscrimination clause of the code of conduct. The board made the decision during a joint meeting Monday with the Texas Behavioral Health Executive Council, which oversees regulatory agencies for professions related to mental health.

The National Association of Social Workers criticized the board’s decision to follow the governor’s recommendation rather than seek public comment.

Will Francis, director of the association’s Texas chapter, told the board during public comments that their decision was “incredibly disheartening.”

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s office said the change was made simply to align the rules with the state’s Occupations Code, which determines how and when the state may discipline social workers.

“It’s not surprising that a board would align its rules with statutes passed by the Legislature,” said Renae Eze, spokeswoman for Abbott’s office.

Francis said the board’s decision creates the impression that people with disabilities can be discriminated against despite federal rules that are in place to protect them.

“It’s disturbing, even if it’s unintentional,” Francis said. “They created space for people to get the impression that this is allowed now. What the governor has done is put people with disabilities at risk for discrimination for no reason.”

Seven advocacy groups, including Equality Texas, Transgender Education Network of Texas and Texas Freedom Network, released a joint statement Thursday decrying the board’s move.

“ Pro - discrimination groups couldn’t get this passed into law,” Texas Freedom Network President Kathy Miller said in the release, “but Gov. Abbott has done their bidding by pushing it through administratively in an obscure meeting when he thought few people were watching.”

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