Governor Bill Haslam has signed a controversial bill into law that allows counselors to refuse treatment based on religious beliefs.
The original wording of the bill allowed a therapist to turn away clients based on the therapist’s “sincerely held religious beliefs.”
The bill has been highly criticized, saying it discriminates the LGBT community.
Tennessee ACLU Executive Director Hedy Weinberg released the following statement in response:
“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. Allowing counselors to treat some potential clients differently from others based on their personal beliefs defies professional standards and could cause significant harm to vulnerable people. This law is yet another attack on the LGBT community in the wake of marriage equality — but we will continue to fight until LGBT Tennesseans are treated fairly and equally in every part of their lives and in the greater community.”
However, Governor Haslam said the bill allows counselors the chance to refer clients to another counselor, and does not target a specific group or belief.
Because of the new law, the Tennessee Equality Project started a new initiative called "Counseling Unconditionally."
The upcoming online directory will provide a list of "inclusive" counseling professionals across the Volunteer state.
Thursday morning, Tennessee Democratic Party Chair Mary Mancini spoke out against the new law in the following statement:
"Governor Haslam has done a dangerous disservice to the people of Tennessee by signing this bill into law. Professional counselors have said that it violates their code of ethics by allowing clients to be treated differently and that it could be harmful to children and young adults in rural areas who already have limited access to licensed therapists. Let's just call it what it is, an extremist Republican majority drunk with power and failing to stand up for the fair and equal treatment of all the people of Tennessee."
Haslam released the following statement after signing the bill:
“Although Senate Bill 1556 has received attention for its perceived focus, my job is to look at the actual substance of the legislation. After considerable thought and discussion with counselors both for and against the bill, I have decided to sign Senate Bill 1556. There are 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, 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,” Haslam said.
“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 better suited to meet his or her needs.”
To read the complete bill, click here. It was signed by the speakers on April 13 and transmitted to the governor for action on April 15.