Metro Weekly

Pair of LGBT activists suing over Tennessee’s counseling exemption law

Plaintiffs allege that law is unconstitutional and targets the LGBT community for disparate treatment

Caleb Laieski (Photo via Facebook).
Caleb Laieski (Photo via Facebook).

Two LGBT rights activists have filed suit against a recently passed Tennessee law that allows therapists to refuse to serve LGBT clients if doing so would violate their personal principles.

The law, originally drafted as a “religious freedom” law for counselors and therapists, was expanded to encompass “personal principles.” For instance, a therapist could refuse to serve any person, whether LGBT or not, if the therapist disagreed with their personal behavior, such as engaging in extramarital sexual relations. While the law contains a provision that says that the therapist declining to treat clients must refer them to another counselor willing to take on the case, critics have pointed out this may be a logistic impossibility in some places, particularly in rural areas where there are already fewer therapists.

The two men suing over the counseling exemption bill argue that the law violates both the U.S. Constitution and the Tennessee Constitution, and singles out a specific group — LGBT people — for disparate treatment. The two have also noted that the law, as written, runs counter to the code of ethics for mental health providers and counselors, which prohibit them from refusing to treat someone because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Plaintiff Caleb Laieski lives in Washington, D.C. and has been a national advocate for the LGBT community since gaining recognition for his work to combat LGBT bullying. Laieski, a former 911 dispatcher, previously sued the Food and Drug Administration over its lifetime deferral — which has since changed to a one-year-deferral period — for men who have sex with men (MSM) and wish to donate blood. Bleu Copas, the second plaintiff, is a Tennessee native with a master’s degree in counseling and a former Army sergeant discharged under the now-defunct “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. 

According to Laieski, the goal of the lawsuit is to send a message to Tennessee lawmakers that discrimination will not be tolerated, particularly when it has the potential to harm those LGBT people seeking mental health services.

“This kind of discrimination sends a message to an already marginalized group of Tennesseans,” Copas said in a statement. “Beyond the blatant and subliminal ethics code violations, this type of legislation creates barriers at a time when building trust is paramount.”

“This statute is one of the many anti-LGBT state statutes that are being passed in our country lately,” said Keith Edmiston, a lawyer from the Knoxville-based law firm Edmiston Foster, who Copas and Laieski have retained as counsel. “We intend to put a stop to them and will fight with all we have to do so.”

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