Tennessee bill denying service based on counselor’s beliefs goes to governor

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Tennessee State Capitol building in Nashville.

Photo courtesy of Natalia Bratslavsky via Shutterstock

Tennessee State Capitol building in Nashville.

(Reuters) – A Tennessee bill allowing counselors to cite religious beliefs or sincerely held principles for refusing service to patients is headed to the governor, one of a raft of state measures that critics say discriminates against lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender individuals.

The measure protects therapists and counselors from lawsuits and criminal prosecution if they deny services to clients whose religious beliefs conflict with their own. But it also requires that they serve any person who is in imminent danger of harming themselves or others. And counselors must refer the clients they will not serve to another counselor who will serve them.

The Tennessee Senate voted 25-to-6 to approve an amendment to the measure on Monday evening after the state House passed the bill last week. Both chambers are Republican-controlled.

The (Nashville) Tennessean reports that if the bill is signed, Tennessee would be the only state to allow counselors to refuse to treat patients. The American Counseling Association told the paper that the measure would be an “unprecedented attack” on its profession.

The U.S. South has been the epicenter of a backlash to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year that legalized same-sex marriage. State-level legislation has drawn widespread criticism, including from musicians Bruce Springsteen and Bryan Adams and companies PayPal Holdings Inc, Coca-Cola Co and Deutsche Bank AG.

Supporters of the measures say they are needed to keep women and children safe in restrooms and to protect religious freedom.

Once the Tennessee bill reaches Republican Governor Bill Haslam’s desk, he has 10 days, excluding Sundays, to take action, said his press secretary, Jennifer Donnals.

Haslam previously told local media that he had not decided whether to sign or veto the legislation but was considering the impact it may have on the state and its citizens.

Tennessee is also considering legislation related to transgender people’s use of school bathrooms.

A new law in North Carolina prohibits transgender people from choosing bathrooms consistent with their gender identity, while a new law in Mississippi allows people with religious objections to deny wedding services to same-sex couples and permits employers to cite religion in determining workplace policies on dress code, grooming and bathroom and locker access.

In addition, civil rights groups are watching a Missouri measure seen as discriminatory.

In Georgia and Virginia, the governors vetoed similar “religious liberty” bills.

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  • yoh

    This is one of many instances where Bible thumpers show an absolute contempt for medical and professional ethics. The other is in the onerous restrictions doctors go through for women’s health issues.

    The Tennessee legislators want to use Jesus and religious excused bigotry to allow therapists to act in a way which violates their professional ethical obligations as practitioners. (See The Geneva Declaration).

    When responding, please do not pretend this bill is suited for a legitimate need or has anything to do with principles of religious freedom. We all know the purpose of this is to attack and demean gays.

  • mgbeheler

    Who would actually want a counselor that did not believe they could serve them?

  • yoh

    Professional ethics prevent a therapist from voicing such a desire.

    Not being able to serve because of physical impossibility or issues which create issues with doctor patient privilege are acceptable in the field. Not being willing to provide service because you are a raging bigot violates are ethical violations. A medical professional has a duty to put such personal issues aside to render care. Therapists can and should lose their license following such a law.

    I see no reason bigots should get dispensation from doing their job when they hold themselves out to the general public. If you can’t do it because your deeply held beliefs prevent you from treating all customers with basic dignity and respect, you don’t deserve to stay in business. A bigoted therapist seeking an relief from a bill like this should not be in practice.

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  • Ben in oakland

    The therapist has the same options as the recalcitrant baker or florist, starting with “sorry, I’m booked.” Better still would be “this is not my field of expertise. Call Jones.”

    This is yet another thinly veiled attack on gay people. No therapist with a shred of professional integrity should be able to say, “you need to get right with God.” Or “I can turn you into a heterosexual.”

    That’s what the anti-ex-gay industry and their religious enablers are for.

  • Debbo

    Yoh is right about this type of behavior violating professional ethics. Such actions should result in loss of license. However, I’m guessing pseudo-counselors who are unlicensed, but simply describe themselves as “Christian counselors” are the ones clamoring for legal protection for their bigotry. Such individuals are the bane of real, professional psychotherapists, psychologists, psychiatrists, and every single ethical human being involved in the mental health field.

  • CarrotCakeMan

    I appreciate seeing your rational comments here. Please continue to debunk this specious claim that “freedom of religion” means “freedom” to hurt LGBT Americans.

  • DougH

    Here’s some examples of why the bigots on the Left are making laws like this necessary: http://www.nationalreview.com/article/433969/religious-liberty-tennessee-counselor-therapist-protections-hate?target=author&tid=1048

  • yoh

    National Review is not going to be a reliable source on any subject conservatives of the fiscal or social variety have thrown their lot into.

    The law is an attempt to permit gross violations of professional ethics for the sake of bigotry. Now if you had something from professional organizations representing therapists then maybe you could make a case that this is meeting a legitimate need in the industry. But you don’t.

    Btw the bigots are the ones seeking to use political power to attack the civil liberties of others. Not the ones calling such behavior out. Nobody has to tolerate your intolerance or inability to treat others in a civil manner.

  • DougH

    Did you even look at the cases mentioned? One involved a social-work student who, when she refused to sign a letter calling on the state legislature advocating gay adoption, was subjected to a star chamber proceeding and then required to change her beliefs as a condition of graduation.

    Then second was a student in the final stages of her graduate counseling class that refused to counsel a gay man about his same-sex relationship, instead referring the file to another counselor who had no moral objections — the client never even knew he’d been referred. For this, she was expelled from the program weeks before graduation.

    Fortunately, in both cases the courts found for the students, in the second case recognizing the longstanding professional ethical practice of referral when a client’s values conflict with the counselor’s. As the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals said: “Tolerance is a two-way street. Otherwise, the rule mandates orthodoxy, not anti-discrimination.”

  • yoh

    In every instance of self-described Christians claiming they are being persecuted or sanctioned for their religious belief in this country, there is a huge amount of misrepresentation and exaggeration. Frankly I have no reason to take such stories at face value. Fundamentalist Christians, especially those of a bigoted stripe are so fond of distorting facts and pretending to be victims that there is no inherent credibility to such stories. Find mainstream sources for these stories. Conservative rags are worthless.

    The idea that these laws have anything to do with religious freedom is one of the poorest supported fictions out there. There is no compelling reason to give people license to discriminate using religion as an excuse.

    A therapist, a person who is a licensed mental health professional. Professional ethics prevent them from refusing patients on the basis of personal prejudices no matter what they are. To do so violates the duty inherent to the job.

  • yoh

    In every instance of self-described Christians claiming they are being persecuted or sanctioned for their religious belief in this country, there is a huge amount of misrepresentation and exaggeration. Frankly I have no reason to take such stories at face value. Fundamentalist Christians, especially those of a bigoted stripe are so fond of distorting facts and pretending to be victims that there is no inherent credibility to such stories. Find mainstream sources for these stories. Conservative rags are worthless.

    There is no compelling reason to give people license to discriminate using religion as an excuse.

  • yoh

    Let’s Debunk the “Christian Persecution” Court Cases That Inspired the “God’s Not Dead” Films

    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2016/04/08/lets-debunk-the-christian-persecution-court-cases-that-inspired-the-gods-not-dead-films/

  • yoh

    “Tne involved a social-work student who, when she refused to sign a letter calling on the state legislature advocating gay adoption”

    Which is akin to stating that their prejudice prevents them from doing their job effectively. Since social workers are needed to conduct home studies for adoptions.

    “Then second was a student in the final stages of her graduate counseling class that refused to counsel a gay man about his same-sex relationship, instead referring the file to another counselor who had no moral objections ”

    Said person seeking counsel happened to be suicidal. So there is another of many omissions and distortions Christians make to pretend they are being persecuted.

  • anna

    Thank you, I am a counseling student, and I believe more harm than good happens if a person is not qualified to help a person. Just because you are trained to do a job doesn’t make you mentally qualified.Find someone who can help you without forcing them to do so.

  • DougH

    In these two cases, the courts disagreed with you. The bigoted discrimination that needed to be smacked down was on the part of the schools.

  • yoh

    Provide links to the cases in mainstream news sources. Again exaggeration is so common to these please of religious persecution of conservative Christians that they cannot be taken at face value.

  • CarrotCakeMan

    No one is forcing counselors to do their jobs, anna. But someone who facetiously claims their anti-gay prejudice is a “sincerely held belief” is simply unqualified to be a counselor. Perhaps they could become a minister in one of the dwindling number of denominations that claims “homophobia is holy.”

  • CarrotCakeMan

    DougH, what part of “an impeachable source” do you not get?

  • Yoh

    According to Jonathan Merritt’s new article, even Christian counselors are opposing this bill. It is also opposed by professional organizations in the mental health field. So it really goes to the point that this bill serves no real function except to attack and demean gays seeking a particular service. To excuse behavior which is wholly unacceptable in the field both ethically and professionally.

    Again if your prejudice against gays is so great that you can’t abide by the standards of professional conduct in the field, you don’t belong in that job.

  • Yoh

    If your “lack of mental qualification” is personal prejudice against the patient, you don’t belong in practice. Find a different line of work. You would be violating a bunch of rules for professional conduct.

  • Yoh

    The people who usually are the first to claim bias are the ones least likely to honestly describe facts. Accusations of bias do not equal proof a story is untrue.

  • G Key

    “The measure protects therapists and counselors from lawsuits and criminal prosecution if they deny services to clients whose religious beliefs conflict with their own. But it also requires that they serve any person who is in imminent danger of harming themselves or others. And counselors must refer the clients they will not serve to another counselor who will serve them.”

    Well, let’s see, now:

    “He was my client, but I didn’t know he was gay until he told me a year after we started.”
    “And she was also my client, until I found out that she was both single and pregnant.”
    “How was I to know that they were imminent danger of harming themselves or others?”
    “How was I to know that the counselors I referred had all converted/moved/retired/died?”
    “How was I to know I was the fifth counselor in a row to reject them for disobeying God?”
    “Besides, it wasn’t even about them — I was just exercising my own religious freedom.”

    What a spiritually gratifying opportunity for counselors to show (off) their moral character!
    What a professionally gratifying way for counselors to (mis)treat their moral inferiors!