Tennessee bill would allow therapists to refuse LGBT patients on religious grounds

A Tennessee bill that would permit therapists to refer LGBT patients elsewhere based on religious convictions is being challenged by counselor organizations, but religious conservatives say such bills are necessary to protect religious principles.

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.

Therapists have joined cake bakers and wedding photographers on the list of professionals jumping into the fray of national debate around LGBT rights and religious accommodations.

A bill in the Tennessee House of Representatives gives counselors the right to refuse treatment to patients based on religious objections. The bill passed the state Senate last month and aims to direct patients to specialists, according to sponsor Sen. Jack Johnson (R).

A coalition of counseling groups launched an ad campaign against it, directing their criticism at House Speaker Beth Harwell (R) and saying the bill allows counselors to turn away patients because they are gay, transgender, or practice another religion.

“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,” wrote the American Counseling Association, a member of the coalition opposing the bill, in a press release. 

Representatives in the House say this bill responds to changes in the American Counseling Association's code of ethics, which Tennessee, like many other states, adopts. In 2014 the Association wrote that counselors cannot refuse services to clients based on "personally held values, attitudes, beliefs and behaviors," Holly Meyer wrote for the Tennessean. 

“This bill will not allow a counselor’s religious rights to be discriminated against while mandating that the counselor make an appropriate referral of the client to someone whose values and beliefs are more compatible with the client,” said sponsor Rep. Dan Howell (R), according to the Tennessean. “That just makes sense to me.”

This bill is one of many attempts in recent months to reconcile the growing rights of LGBT individuals with the religious convictions of conservatives who oppose same-sex marriage on moral grounds. The debate is occurring around the country, but several similar bills have arisen in Southern states, which were taken by surprise in the Supreme Court ruling that legalized same-sex marriage across the United States, as Molly Jackson wrote for The Christian Science Monitor:

Although majorities of Americans support the right to gay marriage, Southern states, in particular, show a different story. In Mississippi, for example, where support for gay marriage is the lowest in the country, only 25 percent support it, and just 54 percent believe it should be illegal to discriminate against gay individuals, according to polls by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI). Overall, 53 percent of Americans support gay marriage, while 37 percent oppose it; 71 percent support laws against discriminating against gay or transgender people for housing or jobs.

Supporters of these bills point to court cases in which religious conservatives from various professions were dragged into contentious court cases by accusations of discrimination. Opponents ask whether religious adherents are using their faith as an excuse to offend others.

"Religion has been used to discriminate against people for a long time ... and that is really a concern of mine," Rep. John Ray Clemmons (D) said during the debate, according to the Tennessean. "Don't get me wrong, I don't want anyone to believe I'm accusing anyone up here of this, but that door is opened if we pass this legislation." 

Forging a path that provides space for all these concerns is a test of society's tolerance amid pluralistic opinions. Balance can be found among both groups, William Eskridge, a Yale Law School professor who has advocated for same-sex marriage for 25 years, told the Monitor's Harry Bruinius. 

“That a subset of the community is not comfortable with this, and they ought to be given space – that’s the idea of tolerance and pluralism,” Professor Eskridge told the Monitor in discussing his personal, not legal opinions. “That they don’t want to disrupt the marriage ceremonies, that’s tolerance on their part, pluralism on their part. But they don’t want to have to participate in these ceremonies, and what they’re asking for is space – tolerance for their going in a different direction.” 

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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