Metro Weekly

Tennessee plans to beef up its anti-gay counselor exemption bill

Tennessee State Capitol building - Photo: photoua
Tennessee State Capitol building – Photo: photoua

Not content to have passed an anti-LGBT law last year, Tennessee lawmakers are trying to add additional teeth to the measure to ensure it’s as tough as possible. The very first bill pre-filed for the upcoming 2017 legislative session seeks to amend the Volunteer State’s counseling exemption law, which allows licensed counselors or therapists to refuse to serve clients if their “goals, outcomes or behaviors” conflict with a counselor’s “sincerely held principles.”

Under the current law, LGBT people seeking counseling or mental health can be turned away, without recourse, if a counselor or therapist decides that they cannot treat the person because of objections to homosexuality or a person’s lifestyle. This conflicts with the American Counseling Association’s code of ethics, which instructs mental health practitioners not to turn away clients based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Yet even though Tennessee was chastised for passing the counseling exemption bill earlier this year, some lawmakers have decided it’s not enough. Now, they’re targeting the ACA and trying to get counselors to write their own code of ethics that would condone refusing to treat LGBT clients.

SB1, as introduced by Sen. Jack Johnson (R-Franklin) during the 2017 pre-filing period last week, would prohibit the state Board for Professional Counselors, Marital and Family Therapists, and Clinical Pastoral Therapists from adopting “any rule that incorporates by reference a national association’s code of ethics, including, but not limited to, the American Counseling Association Code of Ethics.”

Though SB1 directs counselors in Tennessee to adopt a new code of ethics for themselves, it also requires that the rules of that code “shall not require a counselor or therapist to counsel or serve a client as to goals, outcomes, or behaviors that conflict with the sincerely held beliefs of the counselor or therapist,” except in cases where the client is in “imminent danger of harming themselves or others.” In cases where counselors refuse to treat a client, the bill does require them to refer the case to another colleague who is willing to treat the client.

SB1 would also make it nearly impossible to yank the license of a therapist or counselor who turns away clients because of objections to their sexual orientation, gender identity, or sexual history (including straight people who engage in extramarital sex). Furthermore, eliminating the ACA code of ethics would also eliminate its recommendations against conversion therapy, which could essentially green-light the practice among some less LGBT-friendly therapists.

When asked by Nashville Scene if any counselors had asked for the ability to write their own Tennessee-specific code of ethics, Johnson said they had not, but continued to decry the involvement of an outside “special interest group” like the ACA. In a subsequent press release, he said that the ACA’s pro-LGBT change to its code of ethics in 2014 conflicts with state law by providing protections for a group not recognized as a protected class under state law.

“Tennesseans are best suited to determine what our state licensure requirements for our professional counselors should be rather than subrogating that right to a private organization,” Johnson said in the press release. “I believe our State Board of Professional Counselors is capable of this responsibility and that all Tennesseans seeking counseling will benefit as a result.”

Johnson also said he would be unswayed by any cancellation of conferences or economic boycotts of the state in response to his bill. Last year, after the original counseling exemption bill passed, the ACA pulled its national conference from Nashville, in protest of the law. At the time, Richard Yep, the CEO of the ACA, called the exemption bill “the worst” piece of counseling-related legislation he’d seen in 30 years. 

Chris Sanders, executive director of the Tennessee Equality Project, says Johnson’s bill appears to be a “revenge bill” against the ACA for its opposition to the counseling exemption bill.

“[Johnson] thinks that if he brings the game to Tennessee, he can keep inclusive national standards out,” Sanders says.

Sanders also notes that even though Johnson is downplaying the LGBT angle, the same “slight of hand” occurred last year with the counseling exemption bill being framed as a religious freedom measure. But when the bill came before the legislature and testimony was offered in support of it, much of the argument surrounding the “need” for the bill was centered on opposition to homosexuality and same-sex relationships. 

In an action alert sent to members of the Tennessee Equality Project, Sanders wrote that the bill could have a drastic impact for those LGBT people who live in rural areas far away from LGBT-friendly therapists. “The impact is that [SB1] would allow counselors under even more circumstances to turn clients away,” he wrote. “The proposed bill still requires counselors to make a referral, but in many areas that is a hardship on the client.”

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