Will Tennessee create a religious exemption for mental health workers?

Tennessee's Senate passed a bill Monday that would permit mental health workers to turn away patients based on the counselors' religious principles. The bill is now on its way to the governor.

Mark Humphrey/AP/File
House Speaker Beth Harwell (R) answers questions at the Tennessee Press Association convention, Jan. 28, in Nashville, Tenn. She has been targeted by a coalition of groups opposed to a bill that would permit mental health counselors, based on their religious beliefs, to refer LGBT patients elsewhere.

Tennessee’s Republican Gov. Bill Haslam will need to decide whether to sign a bill on its way to his desk Monday that legally protects mental health therapists who deny treatment to patients because of their own religious beliefs and personal principles.

Opponents fear that the bill, which some are calling "Hate Bill 1840," in reference to the name of the state House bill that passed last week 68-22 and was approved by the Senate today, would allow therapists to go against the ethics of their profession to discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and other vulnerable people, particularly those in rural areas with limited access to counseling services.

Supporters believe the bill is necessary to protect the moral beliefs of counselors. If the governor signs the bill, Tennessee will become the only state with such a law.

In February, its state Senate passed the bill with language allowing counselors to turn away patients based on "sincerely held religious beliefs." But last week’s House version amended the language, making it broader by allowing licensed therapists to refuse therapy based on their "sincerely held principles." In such case, the counselor would need to refer the patient to someone else – although the counselor would not be allowed to deny service to people in imminent danger of harming themselves or others.

Opponents of the potential law worry that it's so broad that it would allow therapists to discriminate against patients based on many factors, including race, religion and gender.

Art Terrazas, director of government affairs for the American Counseling Association (ACA), a nonprofit professional organization that calls the bill an "unprecedented attack" on the counseling profession, points out that under this law a therapist opposed to US military policy could refuse to treatment to a veteran with post-traumatic stress syndrome.

"The needs of the client are always a top priority, according to universally taught principles in counselor education, rather than the personally held beliefs of the counselor," writes the ACA in opposition to the bill on its website. "This tenet is a civic and professional responsibility for those who are professional counselors," the organization states.

It is unclear whether Governor Haslam will sign the bill. He told Nashville Public Radio recently that he is considering the implications of the law.

"They [state lawmakers] need to obviously always vote their conscience," he told the radio station, according to Reuters. "One of the things, though, that we should be mindful of is, is there a broader impact?"

Several Southern states have introduced or passed religious freedom laws or legislation designating which bathrooms transgender people can use. These have drawn public condemnation from musicians, such as Bruce Springsteen and Bryan Adams, and companies including PayPal, Coca-Cola, and Deutsche Bank, as Reuters reports.

PayPal last week canceled plans to open a global operations center in Charlotte, N.C., and with it a $3.6-million investment in the area after the state passed a law that forces people to use public bathrooms that match the gender on their birth certificate, rather than the gender they identify with.

"This decision reflects PayPal’s deepest values and our strong belief that every person has the right to be treated equally, and with dignity and respect," said Dan Schulman, president and chief executive officer of PayPal in an announcement of the investment withdrawal on April 5. "These principles of fairness, inclusion and equality are at the heart of everything we seek to achieve and stand for as a company. And they compel us to take action to oppose discrimination," he said.

Governor Haslam has 10 days, excluding Sundays, to take action on Tennessee's counseling services bill.

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