Tennessee Economy Takes a Hit Because of Anti-LGBT Therapy Law

by | May 12, 2016

By Andy Sher

While Nashville has now seen a second group cancel its planned national convention next year over Tennessee's new law letting therapists reject LGBT patients, Chattanooga officials say they have yet to see any impact.

"We haven't received any blowback at all at this point in time for the groups we currently have on the books," said Mike Shuford, executive director of the Chattanooga Convention Center, on Wednesday.

Shuford said he thinks Chattanooga is in a "little bit different situation" from Nashville, focusing on regional business from surrounding states, whereas Nashville draws national groups' conventioneers with its mammoth 1.2 million-square-foot Music City Center.

Bob Doak, president and CEO of the Chattanooga Convention and Visitors Bureau, said he's heard of "no notifications, inquiries or cancellations from any groups coming into town."

In Nashville, it was a different picture.

On Tuesday, the American Counseling Association, which along with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender groups unsuccessfully fought the therapists' bill, announced it was dropping its planned 2017 national convention in Nashville.

Earlier in the week, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney imposed a ban on taxpayer-funded travel except for pressing safety or health business anywhere in Tennessee because of the law. His move extended a ban previously applied to North Carolina and Mississippi over their recently passed laws that members of the LGBT community say discriminate against them.

The Tennessean reported Wednesday the Golden, Colo.-based Centers for Spiritual Living had dropped plans to hold its 550-people-plus, three-day convention in Nashville. It's considered on the small end of conventions Nashville attracts.

The group is now looking for a new city because of the law, signed last month by Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, which allows therapists to turn away LGBT clients based on their "sincerely held principles."

"When the legislation was sent over to the governor's desk, we actually had great hopes that it would be vetoed and canceled," Dr. Kenn Gordon, spiritual leader for Centers for Spiritual Living, told The Tennessean. "But it wasn't, and so when he signed it into law that was the decision-point we made to pull out.

"There are a lot of LGBTQ people that are involved in the world, period, but [also] in our organization," Gordon added. "We did not think in the practice of openness and inclusivity that that law would serve them very well. They felt violated in the action of that, so we chose to take a principled stand."

Haslam, who had previously raised concerns about another bill restricting transgender students to bathrooms and locker facilities matching the sex listed on their birth certificates, said the legislation provided proper safeguards. The new law says a therapist can't reject would-be patients in a crisis situation. And they have to make appropriate recommendations to other mental health professionals.

Earlier Wednesday, Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville, accused Tennessee's legislative "Republican supermajority" and Haslam, whom he charged "enables them," of causing "irreparable harm" to the state's economy and reputation because of the state's new counseling law.

He said losing the American Counseling Association convention with nearly 3,000 expected attendees would result in a $2.5 million revenue loss. He also warned that Tennesseans and local businesses "are left waiting for the other shoe to drop."

Clemmons also declared the notion that Republicans are pro-business a "farce" and accused GOP lawmakers of "kowtowing to zealots" in order to pass "unnecessary and blatantly discriminatory legislation."

Republican sponsors of the bill, as well as David Fowler, president of the Family Action Council of Tennessee, say the law was necessary because of 2014 changes to the American Counseling Association's ethics standards.

Prior to that, they say, therapists and counselors could refer clients whose goals they profoundly disagreed with to other professionals better able to help them. But LGBT advocates say the rejection can be harmful, especially to young people seeking to find their way.

(c)2016 the Chattanooga Times/Free Press (Chattanooga, Tenn.)