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Tennessee enacts 'religious freedom' measure

Critics say the new law, which takes effect immediately, will make it more difficult for LGBT people to access mental health services.
A man carries a cross. (Photo by Eric Gay/AP)
A man carries a cross.

Tennessee on Wednesday became the latest red state to adopt a controversial “religious freedom” measure, this one allowing counselors and therapists to deny service to a patient if doing so were to conflict with the counselor’s “sincerely held principles.”

Critics say the new law, which takes effect immediately, will make it more difficult for LGBT people to access mental health services, particularly in rural areas where options for counseling may be limited. But Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, who signed Senate Bill 1556 into law Wednesday night, said “two key provisions” in the legislation allayed any concern that patients might not be able to receive 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,’” Haslam said in a statement. “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.”

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“The substance of this bill doesn’t address a group, issue or belief system,” he 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.”

Several mental health organizations — including the Tennessee Association for Marriage and Family Therapists, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, the Tennessee Counseling Association, and the American Counseling Association (ACA) — disagree. In a press call last week, Art Terrazas, director of government relations at the ACA, called S.B. 1556 an unprecedented attack on the organization’s code of ethics, which was amended in 2014 to say that counselors may not discriminate against clients on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

“In our 60-plus year history, this is the first time ever in either the history of the country, or of the association that any legislative body — local, state, or federal — has ever passed piece of legislation specifically targeting the American Counseling Association and its code of ethics,” Terrazas said. “Nobody has ever done this.”

In the same press call, John Duggan, manager of professional development at the ACA, poured cold water on the argument that the measure would somehow allow for LGBT people to receive better treatment from a counselor more suited to their needs.

“We’ve always had the ability to address the competency issue if a counselor does not have the skills or training needed to treat someone,” Duggan said. “I’ve experienced that myself working with someone who had trauma with a manifestation of dissociation. I needed to get specialized training to learn how to work with them and have another counselor who is specialized in that area [provide treatment] so that I could continue the professional relationship without abandonment.”

By contrast, Duggan said, Tennessee’s bill allows “counselors to discriminate.”

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S.B. 1556 (or House Bill 1840) is one of more than 200 measures introduced this year that critics view as a concerted effort to roll back the recent advancements of the LGBT equality movement. Typically, very few of these bills become law. But the ones that do — such as North Carolina’s House Bill 2, which nullified local nondiscrimination ordinances and banned transgender people from using government building bathrooms in line with their gender identities — bring significant harm to LGBT people visiting or living in that state and wreak havoc on the local economy.

Tennessee is home to several Fortune 500 companies — including FedEx, which prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity for all operations. In a statement to MSNBC Thursday, FedEx communications adviser Jack Pfeiffer said the company was "committed to providing a workplace where our employees and contractors feel respected, satisfied and appreciated."

"Our policies are designed to promote fairness and respect for everyone," Pfeiffer said. "We will not tolerate certain behaviors. These include harassment, retaliation, violence, intimidation and discrimination of any kind involving race, color, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, age, disability, veteran status or any other characteristic protected by federal, state or local law.”