State Senator Joey Hensley renews his war on LGBT mental healthcare

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As the war against marriage equality seems to be nearing its closing curtain, the culture wars that will follow in its aftermath are heating up across the country, as conservative parties turn to local legislation to strike out at basic liberties and services for the LGBTQ community. From turn-away-the-gays bills to narrower “religious freedom” protections and bully shield laws, Republican lawmakers are executing a slash and burn retreat.

This legislative session, Hohenwald State Senator Hensley (R-28th District), who is a physician, has just filed Senate Bill 397 for introduction to the Senate. This new bill is a second attempt at Hensely’s 2013 SB 514, which became widely maligned as the “counseling discrimination bill.” According to a Tennessean article, “inspired by a case in Michigan involving a Christian student named Julea Ward. She was expelled from a master’s degree program at Eastern Michigan University for refusing to counsel gay clients or clients who were sexually active but not married.”

The 2015 version seeks to amend Tennessee statue to shield counseling students in state colleges from any consequences for refusing to serve LGBTQ clients:

Education, Higher – As introduced, prohibits public institutions of higher education from disciplining or discriminating against a student in a counseling, social work, or psychology program because the student refuses to counsel or serve a client as to goals, outcomes, or behaviors that conflict with a sincerely held religious belief of the student. – Amends TCA Title 4 and Title 49, Chapter 7, Part 1.

The bill brought extremely negative national attention to Tennessee, and sparked vigorous response, not only from LGBTQ rights groups but also from professional counseling and psychological services organizations. Organizations like the American Counseling Association, a national association for counselors, for instance, supported Eastern Michigan University and claimed that students should not be allowed to use religion to turn down clients, and such organizations generally opposed these shield laws.

Back in 2013, one of the loudest objections to the bill was levied by Jake Morris, the director of the graduate counseling program at Lipscomb University, a private, conservative Christian college in Nashville. “I want my students to be able to help anyone who walks in their door,” Morris told The Tennessean. “For example, if a student thinks divorce is sinful, that student still needs to know how to treat clients who have gone through a divorce.”

On the TEP website, Chris Sanders notes that the bill does not have a House sponsor, but he believes it's only a matter of time. He also points out that while these bills are primarily targeted at LGBTQ communities, they "may also affect student interaction with atheist clients, clients who are members of religious minorities, clients who are straight whose sexuality is objectionable to students in these programs." Still, he is optimistic about the level of resistance it will face.

“We expect strong opposition to this bill from allies in counseling, psychology, and social work fields," he told O&AN. "This is bad for students and bad for clients. It hurts the value of these degrees offered in Tennessee. National associations take a dim view of these kinds of exceptions.”

Morris’ comments from 2013 highlight another way in which “shielding” students from clients whose lifestyles violate their “sincerely held religious belief” harms the very students it’s meant to protect: shielding them as students from experiences they will have as professionals decreases the students’ competency. “We are health care professionals,” Morris said. “We need to act like it.”