Tennessee Makes It Legal for Therapists to Reject LGBT Patients

by | April 28, 2016 AT 11:50 AM

By Andy Sher

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam on Wednesday signed into law a controversial bill that allows therapists and counselors with "sincerely held principles" to turn away lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender clients among others.

In his signing statement, the Republican governor said "after considerable thought and discussion with counselors both for and against the bill, I have decided to sign Senate Bill 1556."

Haslam also said there were "two key provisions of this legislation that addressed concerns I had about clients not receiving care. 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," Haslam added, "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 bill has generated national attention, with the state's LGBT community, as well as the American Counseling Association, objecting to the legislation and urging Haslam to veto it.

Critics say the measure, which protects therapists from lawsuits and professional discipline for rejecting clients, could prove especially harmful to young LGBT students bullied at school.

But Rep. Dan Howell, R-Georgetown, who along with Sen. Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, sponsored the measure, has said the bill is intended to protect First Amendment guarantees of free speech and religious liberty.

Haslam argued 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 to meet his or her needs," Haslam added.

Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the Tennessee chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement that "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."

Chris Sanders, executive director of the Tennessee Equality Project, said "we had hoped for a veto. We know the governor carefully considered his decision, but the reality we now face is that counselors will be able to discriminate against clients based on the counselor's principles. We continue to worry particularly about rural LGBT people who may not have adequate resources for counseling in their communities."

But Howell said he is "thrilled" and "my counselor friends across the state of Tennessee are sending emails breathing a sigh of relief because they realize their First Amendment rights have been restored and that's a good thing."

"I think the governor after reading the bill realized that it was getting a lot of undue criticism and [Haslam] thought like it was important to safeguard the First Amendment rights of people who are working in the faith-based field," Howell added. "I'm just thrilled that he's understood, and I'm glad that he signed it."

Johnson, the Senate sponsor, said he's "excited that the governor signed it. I think it's a very reasonable, common-sense piece of legislation and corrects what I believe was a wrong that was effectuated by the American Counseling Association with the change in their code of ethics in 2014."

Haslam has struggled with the issue, telling Tennessee reporters recently that he has heard from counselors on both sides of the debate. He also has publicly mused over whether the counselors can really put aside their personal qualms.

Howell said the bill in his view strikes an appropriate balance between therapists and those needing treatment with requirements therapists refer the clients on to another qualified professional.

But critics warn rejections by counselors could prove devastating to young LGBT students struggling with their identities, having conflicts with parents and getting bullied.

Moreover, they said, people needing help in rural areas with few professionals will have a difficult time finding new counselors.

While the legislation doesn't mention LGBT issues, it was the focal point of House and Senate discussions.

The measure was among a raft of bills directed at lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people in Tennessee and other states this year in the political wake of last year's U.S. Supreme Court landmark ruling legalizing same-sex marriage.

Howell and Johnson say their legislation was prompted by 2014 changes in the American Counseling Association's ethical standards for therapists that came about after a federal appellate court ruling in a Michigan university case.

The university dismissed a student counselor who wanted to refer LGBT clients to someone else because their goals conflicted with her religious views.

The ACA, the Tennessee Equality Project and the ACLU-Tennessee denounced the legislation here as discriminatory.

ACA officials say Tennessee is the only state in the country that will have such a provision in its law books. Some professors who teach counseling at faith-based colleges in Tennessee spoke out against the legislation. They said their professional obligations require them to set aside their own personal beliefs in order to help people.

During the final debate in the House, Howell lashed out at the ACA's changes to its ethical standards, which can affect the professional's licensure.

The group "overstepped their authority and elevated their code above the First Amendment and that's why we're here today," Howell said.

Earlier this month, another controversial bill that sought to require transgender students in public school and colleges to use bathrooms associated with their biological sex at birth was shelved at the last minute by its House sponsor.

One top lawmaker said that happened after Haslam personally intervened and urged the representative to withdraw the bill. The measure had drawn warnings from businesses and others that it could hurt businesses in their hiring and lead other companies to avoid locating or expanding in Tennessee, as well as holding conventions in the Volunteer State.

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