Governor Haslam signs counseling discrimination bill into law

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Despite determined lobbying from activists nationwide, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam has signed a controversial bill that compromises client care in favor of counselors’ “sincerely held principles.” This makes Tennessee the only state that allows counselors to refuse treatment to clients based on their own belief systems.

The law condoning discrimination in the counseling profession is contrary to the codes of ethics for the American Association of Christian Counselors, the American Association of Pastoral Counselors, the National Association of Social Workers, the American Counseling Association, the Association of Marital and Family Therapists, and the American Psychological Association. The American Counseling Association was openly critical of the bill, which many believe was prompted by a 2014 ethics decision from that body that barred discrimination on religious grounds.

The House and Senate bills as introduced were explicitly “religious freedom” in nature, until a House amendment changed the wording “sincerely held religious beliefs” to the more ambiguous “sincerely held principles.”

According to the American Counseling Association, this law opens the door to widespread discrimination which, though it had originally targeted LGBT people, now could affect anyone.

“A counselor is offended by someone's hijab… turned away. A counselor doesn't agree with someone's feminist stances… turned away. The list could go on and on. This bill is extremely dangerous for Tennesseans of all walks of life,” said Art Terrazas, the ACA Director of Government Affairs.

The law now compels counselors who use the “sincerely held principles” justification to refer the client to another counselor, a point that influenced Gov. Haslam’s decision.

In a statement, Haslam said “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.”

The Tennessee Equality Project, in response to Haslam’s decision, urges supportive counselors to endorse its “Counseling Unconditionally” statement. From the TEP website: “We know that the vast majority of professionals are eager to help everyone who walks through their door.  Their compassion and commitment to ethical standards of care can help repair some of the damage this legislation has caused.” The statement reads:

As counselors, therapists, psychologists, psychiatrists, and social workers serving clients in Tennessee, we affirm that we do not discriminate based on sexual orientation or gender identity and we will not use our own sincerely held principles as a reason to turn clients away.