In a victory for religious conservatives, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam (R) signed into law a bill that allows licensed counselors and therapists to refuse to serve clients if their “goals, outcomes or behaviors” conflict with the counselor’s “sincerely held principles.” While it does not specifically single out members of the LGBT community or reference homosexuality, critics say it is the LGBT community who will bear the brunt of the bill’s effects.
The bill shields those therapists who refuse service to people by citing “sincerely held principles” from the threat of civil lawsuits, criminal prosecution and any sanctions or retaliatory measures by licensing boards or professional organizations. It also attempts to push back against 2014 changes to the American Counseling Association’s code of ethics, which instructs counselors and therapists that they may not turn away clients based on a number of characteristics, including sexual orientation or gender identity. Tennessee lawmakers objected to the ACA’s code of ethics because state licensing boards incorporate the code into their rules and regulations — which, lawmakers argue, violates the religious freedom of those in the counseling profession.
In a statement defending his decision to sign the bill into law, Haslam said that the legislation had received attention for its “perceived focus,” implying that critics of the bill were misinformed about what it does, according to The Tennessean.
“There are two key provisions of this legislation that addressed concerns I had about clients not receiving care,” Haslam said in a statement. “First, the bill clearly states that it ‘shall not apply to a counselor or therapist when an individual seeking or undergoing counseling is in imminent danger of harming themselves or others.’ Secondly, the bill requires that any counselor or therapist who feels they cannot serve a client due to the counselor’s sincerely held principles must coordinate a referral of the client to another counselor or therapist who will provide the counseling or therapy.
“The substance of this bill doesn’t address a group, issue or belief system. Rather, it allows counselors — just as we allow other professionals like doctors and lawyers — to refer a client to another counselor when the goals or behaviors would violate a sincerely held principle. I believe it is reasonable to allow these professionals to determine if and when an individual would be better served by another counselor better suited to meet his or her needs.”
But critics contend that the exceptions pointed out by Haslam are far too limited and that the wording of the bill is vague, potentially opening up a broad swath of exemptions for therapists to refuse to treat not only LGBT people, but single mothers, cohabitants, or other groups of whom an individual therapist disapproves. The ACLU of Tennessee noted that the bill originally allowed therapists to refuse service on “sincerely held religious beliefs,” but that was amended to the much broader and more ill-defined “sincerely held principles.”
“We are disappointed that the governor has chosen to sign this troubling bill into law. This measure is rooted in the dangerous misconception that religion can be used as a free pass to discriminate,” Hedy Weinberg, the executive director of the ACLU of Tennessee, said in a statement. “Allowing counselors to treat some potential clients differently from others based on their personal beliefs defies professional standards and could cause significant harm to vulnerable people. This law is yet another attack on the LGBT community in the wake of marriage equality — but we will continue to fight until LGBT Tennesseans are treated fairly and equally in every part of their lives.”
The American Counseling Association also expressed its disapproval of the measure, which it had opposed. The ACA previously argued that counselors already have the ability to refer clients to other therapists for professional reasons, so long as they are not discriminating against their clients. The organization has also pointed out that people in rural areas, where fewer therapists are available, will likely be the people most impacted by the therapist exemption bill.
Art Terrazas, a spokesman for the ACA, said in a statement that the group was “extremely disappointed” that Haslam chose to sign the discriminatory bill into law.
“Plain and simple, this bill codifies discrimination,” Terrazas said. “It not only disproportionately affects LGBTQ Tennesseans seeking counseling, but will also have unintended consequences that will reach Tennesseans in all walks of life — whether it’s a veteran suffering from PTSD, a woman suffering from spousal abuse or a business owner simply trying to attract out of state clients.”
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