Friday, April 29, 2016

Tennessee Governor Signs Counseling Bill Into Law

For opponents of the Religious Right, it's been a rocky few weeks in Tennessee. A bill that would have made the Bible Tennessee's state book was mercifully vetoed earlier this month. Liberty Counsel and MassResistance undermined attempts to create a gay-straight alliance club at a high school in Franklin County, Tennessee. Now, a new bill will make it legal for counselors to discriminate against LGBTQ clients.

On April 27th, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam signed Senate Bill 1556 into law, according to MSNBC. The bill states that "No counselor or therapist providing counseling or therapy services shall be required to counsel or serve a client as to goals, outcomes, or behaviors that conflict with a sincerely held religious belief of the counselor or therapist; provided, that the counselor or therapist coordinates a referral of the client to another counselor or therapist who will provide the counseling or therapy."

In effect, the bill allows counselors to refuse service to LGBTQ clients on the basis of their religious beliefs. To boot, the law could plausibly allow counselors to refuse service to anyone whose identity of behavior, no matter how harmless, run afoul of their religious sensibilities. Will we now see fundamentalist counselors in Tennessee denying care to LGBTQ people, people who engage in premarital sex, or non-Christians? Will people who don't fit the fundamentalist mold now be bounced around from therapist to therapist when they need mental health treatment?

Like other bigoted bills coming forward across the U.S., SB 1556 should anger us. SB 1556 would permit actions that contradict the very ethical foundations of the counseling profession. Discriminating against clients due to religious beliefs runs counter to the counselor's responsibility to promote social justice, enhance human development, and foster client autonomy.

The new law has been poorly-received by mental health professionals. Art Terrazas, director of government relations at the American Counseling Association, told LGBT Weekly that the "dangerous" law "codifies discrimination", adding that the ACA would continue to fight such legislation. According to the Tennessean, the ACA was scheduled to hold its annual conference at Music City Center in Nashville in 2017. Now that Governor Haslam has signed SB 1556 into law, the organization may move the event.

On April 28th, the Tennessee Counseling Association posted a statement expressing disappointment in the passage of SB 1556. TCA president Audrey A. Elion and advocacy chair Lisa Henderson encouraged all Tennessee counselors to engage in organizations that shape decision-making regarding the counseling profession, so as to " reduce the likelihood that issues related to counseling become politicized".
"We are very disappointed to see a bill that allows counselors the ability to deny services to potential clients, which is in direct conflict with ACA’s nondiscrimination statement, go into effect for licensed mental health practitioners in the state of Tennessee."
Other mental health professionals stand in opposition to the recent wave of bigoted legislation. A few days before SB 1556 was signed into law, the American Psychological Association posted a press release condemning anti-LGBTQ legislation.
"The American Psychological Association is committed to promoting the health and well-being of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. We are therefore seriously concerned about the recent wave of state-level legislation discriminating against these individuals. Our association has a long history of supporting protections for LGBT people, including in those areas currently under attack — most notably employment, marriage and public accommodations.
APA is calling for passage of the federal Equality Act to provide protections for LGBT people against such unfair and harmful treatment. The adoption of such legal protections offers one way to reduce this undue burden of discrimination faced by LGBT people."
By contrast, Religious Right figures are praising the bill. In an April 28th Washington Update, the Family Research Council loudly praised Governor Haslam as a protector of supposedly persecuted Christian counselors.
"Under the bill he just signed into law, counselors don't have to make the choice between their practice and their principles. H.B. 1840 is just one in a long line of state defenses to the sexual bullying of the Left. Although Tennessee's bill is the first of its kind, the ongoing battle between religious liberty and LGBT activists guarantee it won't be the last. After the American Counseling Association stripped counselors' rights to act according to their beliefs, Tennessee leaders stepped in to give them the protection they deserve. As part of H.B. 1840, no private practice therapist can be forced to take on a client who has "goals, outcomes, or behaviors that conflict with [the counselor's] sincerely-held principles."

That used to be common sense. Not anymore! Americans are being punished at an alarming rate for daring to live out their beliefs in the workplace. And Christian counselors are one of the growing targets. "As a professional," Governor Haslam argued, "I should have the right to decide if my clients' end goals don't match with my beliefs -- I should have the right to say somebody else can better serve them. Lawyers can do that. Doctors can do that. Why would we take this one class of professionals and say you can't?"

Unfortunately, that's exactly the kind of ideological coercion the Left is trying to make official U.S. policy. In their intolerance, liberals are demanding a new system of involuntary servitude -- and they want the state to enforce it. Tolerance isn't a one-way street -- and laws like Tennessee's make sure of it. Our thanks to Governor Haslam for doing the right thing -- not just for counselors, but for liberty."
In an online statement, Family Research Council president Tony Perkins had the audacity to claim that SB 1556 represented "tolerance and understanding."
"Tennessee lawmakers are right in acting to protect the ability of therapists and counselors to continue serving in their helping profession in a manner that does not conflict with their religious beliefs. America has a long and storied history of respecting Americans’ freedom to believe and actually live their lives according to those beliefs. It was this tolerance and understanding that led the first Congress and the American people to enshrine religious freedom in our Constitution.

Senate Bill 1556 is an important first step in preserving this fundamental freedom for those who do not agree with the Left’s radical ideology. Tennessee joins North Carolina and Mississippi in the growing list of states refusing to criminalize people whose beliefs about sexuality and marriage are at odds with President Obama’s extreme political and social agenda."
Other Religious Right voices are defending SB 1556 as well. David Fowler of the Family Action Council of Tennessee (FACT) was a vocal lobbyist in favor of the bill, according to NPR. In an April 29th post, FACT called opponents of the bill "hypocrites" who are "coming unglued" over a bill that is "no big deal".

Legislation such as SB 1556 is unacceptable. Discrimination is morally wrong, whether it involves marriage licenses, bathrooms, or mental health services. LGBTQ persons deserve access to the same amenities and services as anyone else. Counseling should be available to everyone, not just people who fit a Christian fundamentalist mold.

To read additional commentary, visit the following links.

The Atlantic: A Controversial Therapy Law in Tennessee

ACLU of Tennessee: Governor Signs Bill Allowing Counselors to Discriminate

Wonkette: Bigot Tennessee Therapists Can’t Wait To Screw The Gays For Jesus

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