Metro Weekly

Tennessee lawmakers pass bill allowing exemptions for therapists

Therapists could cite not only religious beliefs, but moral principles, in refusing to treat clients

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam (Photo: U.S. Department of Agriculture, via Wikimedia).
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam (Photo: U.S. Department of Agriculture, via Wikimedia).

Lawmakers in Tennessee passed a bill last week that allows counselors and therapists to claim a religious or moral exemption for treating patients referred to them. 

The measure allows mental health professionals, counselors and other therapists to refuse to see clients whose cases go against their “sincerely held principles.” Those who refuse to treat someone due to, say, their sexual orientation would be protected from the threat of lawsuits or criminal prosecution, as well as any retaliatory action by state government, such as the denial of special tax breaks, grants or government contracts. The bill does require those who refuse to treat patients based on that objection to refer them to another counselor or therapist who will take the case. The bill passed in the House of Representatives by a 68-22 margin.

The Senate version of the bill easily passed the upper chamber by a 27-5 margin, but the bill must be amended further, since the House changed the Senate’s wording from “sincerely held religious belief” to “sincerely held principles,” reports The Tennessean. In doing so, they expanded the number of people able to claim an exemption beyond just those who object based on religion but on moral principles, which requires a much lower threshold for justification. If the Senate approves the revised language, the bill will head to the desk of Gov. Bill Haslam (R), who must either veto it or sign it into law.

But Haslam has been reticent to publicly endorse any anti-LGBT legislation sent to him by the General Assembly. A spokeswoman for the governor’s office previously noted that Haslam had reservations about signing a separate anti-LGBT bill that requires students in educational settings to use only the restroom or changing facility that corresponds to their biological sex at birth as listed on their birth certificate. As a result of both the “bathroom bill” and this religious exemption bill, Haslam is facing economic pressure from the business community to veto both measures. If either bill becomes law, Tennessee could potentially see businesses scuttle plans to relocate to, expand in, or hold conventions in the state. 

Proponents on the measure argue that the bill is necessary to protect the free speech and conscience rights of therapists. They say they are responding to a change that the American Counseling Association made to its code of ethics in 2014. That provision says that a counselor or therapist cannot refuse to treat a client based solely on the therapist’s “personally held values, attitudes, beliefs and behaviors.”

“They have elevated their code above the First Amendment and we need to correct that, and that’s why this bill is here today,” Rep. Dan Howell (R-Georgetown), the chief sponsor of the bill, said of the ACA’s change during the floor debate last week.

Democrats and LGBT legislative allies tried to introduce six different amendments that would lessen the sting of the exemptions provided to therapists. One would have prohibited therapists from exercising the exemption when the clients are minors who are victims of bullying, and one would have prevented the therapist from charging the client they are refusing to treat. Another would have required any therapist with those objections to post a public notice stating that they reserve the right to refuse to treat patients based on religious objections, and include that notice in any advertising materials.

The Tennessee Equality Project is circulating a petition asking Haslam to veto the bill if it reaches his desk, noting that the bill — especially in light of the failure of the proposed anti-bullying amendment — leaves youth, particularly those in rural areas where mental health services are not widely available, vulnerable.

“This bill puts the focus on the desires of counselors rather than on the needs of clients, damaging the counseling profession and putting clients at risk,” the petition reads. As of Monday evening, more than 2600 people had signed the petition.

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