Tenn. Bill Protecting Counselors' Religious Beliefs Sent to Gov.; Wouldn't Be Forced to Affirm LGBT

The Tennessee legislature sent a bill to the governor that, if enacted, would give legal protection to counselors and therapists who may religiously object to providing certain services.

In particular, the bill appears to be aimed at protecting counselors whose clients expect them to affirm sexual behaviors the counselor deems sinful.

Senate Bill 1556 was approved Monday by the upper house in a vote of 25 ayes against 6 nays. Governor Bill Haslam has ten days excluding Sundays to sign it into law.

"This bill provides immunity from liability for counselors and therapists who refuse to counsel a client as to goals, outcomes, or behaviors that conflict with a sincerely held religious belief of the counselor or therapist," reads SB 1556's official summary.

"Counselors or therapists refusing to provide counseling or therapy under this bill must coordinate a referral of the client to another counselor or therapist who will provide the service. This bill includes liability protection for those persons providing counseling or therapy services whether or not they are licensed, registered, or otherwise regulated by the state."

In addition to passing the Senate overwhelmingly earlier this week, the House passed the bill in a vote of 68 ayes to 22 nays.

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(Photo: REUTERS/Mike Theiler)Tennessee Republican Governor Bill Haslam listens during the National Governors Association Winter Meeting in Washington, in this February 22, 2014, file photo. Agreeing there must be a 48-hour waiting period between the time a woman consults her doctor about an abortion and the time it can be performed, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam signed the second of two major abortion regulation bills into law on May 18, 2015.

Despite the large majorities, SB 1556 has garnered controversy as some, including the American Counseling Association, view the bill as unethical, opening the door to allow counselors to discriminate against LGBT individuals.

"Tennessee, like many states, includes ACA's Code of Ethics in their state counselor licensure law. This bill, if signed into law, would allow professional counselors in Tennessee to disregard section A.11.b. of the 2014 ACA Code of Ethics and essentially permit discrimination," stated the ACA.

"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. This tenet is a civic and professional responsibility for those who are professional counselors."

Social conservative groups like the Family Action Council of Tennessee argued that the bill is necessary, citing the ACA's own amending of their rules in 2014 that ended up "prohibiting a counselor from referring a client based on a counselor's 'personally held values.'"

"This amendment by the ACA was in direct response to a 6th Circuit Court of Appeals decision in Ward v. Polite, which upheld the right of a Christian counselor to refer a gay/lesbian client if the therapy sought required the counselor to affirm a same-sex relationship in violation of her beliefs," stated the Council.

"The ACA Code of Ethics was amended to specifically target Christian counselors. However, any sincerely held religious belief or personal value would be subject to these violations, so it is important to preserve the rights of counselors to practice their profession according to the dictates of their conscience."

Suzannah Gonzales of Reuters linked the proposed legislation to a general trend among southern legislatures since the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling Obergefell v. Hodges.

"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," reported Gonzales.

"In addition, civil rights groups are watching a Missouri measure seen as discriminatory. In Georgia and Virginia, the governors vetoed similar 'religious liberty' bills."