Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam (R) has approved a law that allows counselors and therapists in the state to reject clients based on the professionals’ “sincerely held” principles, including their religious beliefs.
Signed by Haslam on Wednesday, the legislation grants licensed counselors and therapists the permission to turn away clients whose “goals, outcomes, or behaviors” conflict with the counselor’s values. The legislation shields the practitioners from civil lawsuits and criminal prosecution.
The GOP-backed measure requires counselors and therapists to coordinate a referral to another professional and does not apply in cases where clients seeking treatment are “in imminent danger of harming themselves or others.” Counselors in Tennessee can already refer patients to other counselors “if counselors lack the competence to be of professional assistance to clients.”
The law’s verbiage initially included the phrase “sincerely held religious beliefs,” but Tennessee state senators ultimately approved a house amendment that changed the bill’s language to “sincerely held principles.”
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The bill’s provisions went into effect immediately. The bill would have become law without Haslam’s signature, according to the Tennessean.
Haslam said he approved the measure because of the law’s referral requirement and “imminent danger” provision, the Tennessean reported.
The American Counseling Association (ACA) had issued a statement urging Haslam to veto the bill.
Referring to the measure as “Hate Bill 1840,” ACA officials noted that the law is a direct violation of its code of ethics, which was updated two years ago to better prevent discrimination against people who need professional counseling services, according to the Tennessean.
The Tennessee licensing board for professional counselors and marital and family therapists incorporates the ACA’s ethics code into its rules and regulations and can sanction licensees who violate its policies.
Art Terrazas, director of government affairs for the ACA, said in a statement that the bill allowed “hateful legislators to codify their prejudicial beliefs.”
“The fact that they chose to change the bill from permitting counselors to deny services based on their own ‘strongly held religious beliefs’ to permitting counselors to deny services based on their own ‘strongly held personal beliefs,’ proves that they want to allow for even greater levels of discrimination,” Terrazas said.
The ACA announced that it was reconsidering holding its annual Conference & Expo in Nashville in 2017 because of recent legislative actions taken by Tennessee’s Republican-held legislature.
Nashville Mayor Megan Barry (D) criticized the bill in a statement, along with officials from the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee and the Tennessee Equality Project.
“It hurts our LGBT citizens, negatively impacts our economy and seeks to undermine the counseling profession,” Barry said, according to the Tennessean.