Gov. Haslam signs controversial counseling bill into law

(Photo: WKRN)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – Governor Bill Haslam signed the controversial counseling bill into law Wednesday.

The bill allows counselors to turn patients away based on the counselors’ “strongly held principles.”

“Although Senate Bill 1556 has received attention for its perceived focus my job is to look at the actual substance of the legislation,” the governor said in a statement Wednesday. “After considerable thought and discussion with counselors both for and against the bill, I have decided to sign.”

The bill’s sponsor called the legislation “common sense.”

“People should practice the way they want to practice,” said State Senator Jack Johnson (R-Brentwood), “as long as people get the help that they need.”

Sen. Johnson said dozens of counselors voiced their concern when the group that represents them, the American Counseling Association (ACA), changed their Code of Ethics two years ago. The change states that counselors can’t turn away clients based solely on their personal beliefs.

The ACA’s Director of Government Relations Art Terrazas said the code protects patients who are vulnerable.

Terrazas said in a statement, “Plain and simple, this bill codifies discrimination. It not only disproportionately affects LGBTQ Tennesseans seeking counseling, but will also have unintended consequences that will reach Tennesseans in all walks of life—whether it’s a veteran suffering from PTSD, a woman suffering from spousal abuse, or a business owner simply trying to attract out of state clients.”

The ACA said they haven’t decided whether they will hold their 2017 convention in Nashville in the wake of the bill’s passage. If they choose to move it, Nashville stands to lose upwards of $2.5 million in visitor spending.

Governor Haslam said in a statement there were two key provisions of the legislation that address the concerns he had about clients not receiving care.

“First, the bill clearly states that it ‘shall not apply to a counselor or therapist when an individual seeking or undergoing counseling is in imminent danger of harming themselves or others.’ Secondly, the bill requires that any counselor or therapist who feels they cannot serve a client due to the counselor’s sincerely held principles must coordinate a referral of the client to another counselor or therapist who will provide the counseling or therapy,” Haslam explained.

He said the substance of the bill doesn’t address a group, issue or belief system but rather “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.”

Haslam, he says, believes it is “reasonable” to allow counselors to determine if and when someone would be better served by another counselor.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Tennessee said they are disappointed the governor signed “this troubling bill” into law, adding it is “rooted in the dangerous misconception that religion can be used as a free pass to discriminate.”

“Allowing counselors to treat some potential clients differently from others based on their personal beliefs defies professional standards and could cause significant harm to vulnerable people. This law is yet another attack on the LGBT community in the wake of marriage equality, but we will continue to fight until LGBT Tennesseans are treated fairly and equally in every part of their lives and in the greater community,” the ACLU concluded.

Mayor Megan Barry said, “I am disappointed that HB1840 has become law; it hurts our LGBT citizens, negatively impacts our economy, and seeks to undermine the counseling profession. As Mayor, I’ll continue to do whatever I can to create a warm and welcoming city free from discrimination.”

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