Groups Boycott Tenn. Over Therapist Freedom-of-Conscience Law

By Rachel Hoover | May 31, 2016 | 5:53pm EDT
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam. (AP photo)

( -- Several groups have cancelled scheduled events in Nashville, Tennessee in protest over a new state freedom of conscience law that allows mental health counselors and therapists in private practice to refuse service to some clients.

The new law, which Gov. Bill Haslam signed on April 27, 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 the sincerely held principles 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.”

One exception is “when an individual seeking or undergoing counseling is in imminent danger of harming themselves or others.”

According to Gov. Haslam’s signing statement, “the substance of this bill doesn’t address a group, issue or belief system. 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,” Haslam said.

However, groups such as the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and the American Counseling Association (ACA) are calling the law “needless and mean-spirited” and “a ‘hate bill’ against gay and transgender people,” according to the Tennessean.

The cancelled events include the HRC Foundation’s “Time to THRIVE” conference for educators and counselors promoting the “safety, inclusion and well-being of LGBTQ youth”; a Centers for Spiritual Living conference, and ACA’s 2017 conference and expo.

In a video statement, Richard Yep, ACA’s chief executive officer, called the bill a “discriminatory religious freedom law” and said it “targets gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Americans.”

“Of all the state legislation impacting counseling during my 30 years with ACA, the new Tennessee law … is the worst,” Yep said.

In addition to these cancellations, the mayor of Washington, D.C. and the mayor of Philadelphia have banned publicly-funded travel to Tennessee in response to the new law.

On the other hand, the Family Action Council of Tennessee (FACT) praises the law on their website:

“The ACA wants counselors to ‘bracket’ or suspend their personal values that are not in line with the goals of the client,” FACT states. “A counselor ‘bracketing’ their values is much less likely to adequately treat a client than one who fully supports and personally believes in the client’s desired outcome. … A client deserves to be treated by a counselor who not only sympathizes with their issues, but is also experienced and competent to offer effective treatment.”

It is unclear how much money Nashville will lose because of the cancellations, but the ACA conference alone was expected to generate around $10 million for the area.

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