Tennessee Law Lets Therapists Turn Down LGBT Clients

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam (R) signed a bill on Wednesday that makes it legal for therapists and counselors to turn down LGBT clients based on “sincerely held principles.”


Per the bill, therapists are not permitted to refuse clients who are an imminent danger to themselves or others, and therapists must refer their clients to another provider if they refuse to provide service.

The bill’s original wording said “sincerely held religious beliefs” rather than principles.

Related Story: Mayors Unite Against Discrimination

Haslam defended his decision in a statement.

“The substance of this bill doesn’t address a group, issue or belief system,” the governor said. “Rather, it allows counselors — just as we allow other professionals like doctors and lawyers — to refer a client to another counselor when the goals or behaviors would violate a sincerely held principle. I believe it is reasonable to allow these professionals to determine if and when an individual would be better served by another counselor better suited to meet his or her needs.”

However, the American Counseling Association (ACA) slammed the bill when it was first approved in March, calling this first-of-its-kind measure “an unprecedented attack on the American Counseling Association’s Code of Ethics.”

“The ACA Code of Ethics clearly states that professional counselors may not deny services to a client regardless of that person’s ‘age, culture, disability, ethnicity, race, religion/spirituality, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, marital/partnership status, language preference, socioeconomic status, immigration status, or any basis proscribed by law.’ (Section C.5),” the ACA wrote on its website. “Counselors put aside their own needs in order to understand those of their clients.”

The Tennessee Counseling Association (TCA), the state branch of the ACA, also condemned the bill, calling it “unnecessary” and a “harm to consumers, counselors, [and] the profession.”

“When we choose health care as a profession, we choose to treat all people who need help, not just the ones who have goals and values that mirror our own,” the organization stated.

The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) spoke out against the bill when it was first introduced in February in a statement on its website. According to the organization, the adage of requiring counselors to refer their clients does not ultimately help the patient — especially in a state where mental health treatment is already so scarce.

“This law could negatively impact LGBT people in Tennessee, particularly those living in one of the 63 areas in the state that are currently underserved by mental health providers,” the organization wrote. “Additionally, referring a client, particularly at a time of crisis or after prolonged period of building trust, can have damaging impact to an individual’s mental health.”

Statistically, members of the LGBT community struggle with mental illness and related problems at higher rates than the rest of the population — meaning laws that could hinder or prevent LGBT people from receiving necessary counseling or therapy could be especially detrimental. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, “LGBTQ individuals are almost 3 times more likely than others to experience a mental health condition such as major depression or generalized anxiety disorder.” Further, “For LGBTQ people aged 10-24, suicide is one of the leading causes of death. LGBTQ youth are 4 times more likely and questioning youth are 3 times more likely to attempt suicide, experience suicidal thoughts or engage in self-harm than straight people. Between 38-65% of transgender individuals experience suicidal ideation.”

Tennessee now joins the ranks of North Carolina and Mississippi, where anti-LGBT laws were recently signed into law as well. North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory (R) passed House Bill 2, which “require[s] every multiple occupancy bathroom or changing facility to be designated for and only used by persons based on their biological sex” — meaning transgender people cannot use the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity. And in Mississippi, Gov. Phil Bryant (R) passed House Bill 1523, which legally allows businesses to discriminate against the LGBT community under the guise of “religious freedom.”

These laws prompted mayors from around the country to form a coalition, Mayors Against Discrimination (MAD), to fight the discrimination. Mayors of these cities have forbidden government employees from unnecessary travel to these states and also do not wish to conduct business with companies operating in these states.

Earlier this month, following backlash from LGBT groups and big companies (including Time Warner, No. 37 on the 2016 DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity, and The Walt Disney Company, No. 38) Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal (R) vetoed a “religious liberty” bill in his state that would have allowed religious officials to refuse to perform marriage ceremonies for LGBT couples.

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