Tennessee Lawmakers Just Passed a Bill That Would Allow Therapists to Refuse to Treat Gay Clients

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The House of Representatives meets on the opening day of the 109th General Assembly Tuesday, Jan. 13, 2015, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
The Tennessee House of Representatives.Photo: Mark Humphrey

Tennessee’s House of Representatives just passed a bill that would allow therapists who believe homosexuality is the mark of Satan to refuse to treat gay clients. More precisely, the bill allows mental-health counselors to deny treatment to anyone who seeks help with “goals, outcomes, or behaviors that conflict with the sincerely held principles of the counselors or therapist.” If the bill makes it into law, Tennessee would be the first state to allow therapists to pick what kind of clients they’re willing to serve.

From a certain angle, the law may appear more significant on a symbolic level than a practical one: If you’re a gay teenager looking for someone to counsel you through your first same-sex relationship, it’s probably in your interest to see someone who doesn’t think that relationship will bring you eternal hellfire. But what’s really at stake in the legislation is what the ethical code for licensed mental-health professionals in the United States will entail. The bill was drafted in reaction to the American Counseling Association’s 2014 code of ethics, which warned counselors not to impose their personal values onto their clients. Tennessee’s bill would allow the state’s mental-health professionals to reject clients — for failing to conform to their beliefs — without losing their licenses. The bill’s opponents argue that allowing therapists such a prerogative would endanger the lives of vulnerable people.

For people seeking counseling because they are faced with a critical dilemma in their lives and need objective guidance, allowing mental-health professionals to discriminate could cause grave damage,” the ACLU of Tennessee warns. “Many who need care already face significant barriers, including trauma, marginalization, and a historic distrust of mental-health providers. For some — like a woman who wants to escape her abusive spouse or a gay teen being bullied, for example — this bill could affect their very survival.”

The bill does stipulate that counselors would not be allowed to turn away anyone who is in imminent danger of harming themselves or others.

Supporters of the legislation claim that the ACA’s ethics code impinges on mental-health professionals’ right to freedom of religion. Representative Dan Howell told the Chattanooga Times Free Press that the association had “overstepped their authority and elevated their code above the First amendment and that’s why we’re here today.”

An earlier version of the legislation already passed the state senate, but new amendments to the bill will force the upper chamber to take a second vote. Assuming the bill passes, it will go to the desk of Republican governor Bill Haslam.

Like similar “religious liberty” laws designed to allow conservative Christian businesses the right to refuse service to homosexuals, Tennessee’s bill could ostensibly be used to deny service to virtually anyone. In an interview with ABC News, Art Terrazas, director of government affairs for the American Counseling Association, argued that a therapist who sincerely opposed U.S. military policy could use the law to refuse counsel to veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

The bill’s passage comes one day after Mississippi enacted a law that allows businesses to deny services to gay couples out of religious principle. That law also declared that gender is “determined by anatomy and genetics at time of birth,” and that business owners are thus within their rights to demand to see a birth certificate before allowing a transgender person to use their preferred restroom.