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Tennessee the latest red state poised to approve 'religious freedom' bill

Yet another “religious freedom” bill stands on the brink of becoming law.
A parade goer waves a pride flag. (Photo by Sarah Rice/Getty)
A parade goer waves a pride flag.

Yet another “religious freedom” bill stands on the brink of becoming law.

Tennessee’s Republican-controlled House of Representatives on Wednesday passed House Bill 1840, a measure that would allow counselors and therapists to deny service to a patient if doing so were to conflict with the counselor’s “sincerely held religious beliefs.”

The vote was 68 to 22, mostly along party lines, and cleared the way for the bill to head back to the state Senate for final approval. Because a slightly different version of the bill already passed Tennessee’s Senate in February, it’s likely headed for the governor’s desk.

In an email to MSNBC, David Smith, Republican Gov. Bill Haslam's communications director, gave no indication of where his boss stood on the legislation. "As he does with all bills that come to him," said Smith, "the governor will review this legislation in its final form before taking action on it. He has 10 days -- not including Sundays -- once it comes to his desk."

RELATED: Mississippi enacts 'religious freedom' bill

Wednesday’s passage comes amid widespread backlash to recently enacted anti-LGBT laws in North Carolina and Mississippi. On Tuesday, PayPal canceled plans to employ more than 400 people in skilled jobs at a new global operations center in Charlotte, following Republican Gov. Pat McCrory’s March 23 decision to sign House Bill 2, a measure banning local nondiscrimination ordinances that shield LGBT North Carolinians. That law also prohibits transgender people from using public restrooms in line with their gender identities.

In Mississippi, meanwhile, Republican Gov. Phil Bryant also earned swift condemnation Tuesday for his decision to sign into law House Bill 1523, a measure that prevents government agencies from taking action against state employees, individuals, organizations and private associations that deny services based on religious objections. By nightfall Tuesday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, had issued an executive order banning all non-essential state travel to the Magnolia State. On Wednesday, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton, also a Democrat, followed suit.

Opponents view the measures in North Carolina, Mississippi and now Tennessee, as part of a concerted push to enshrine LGBT discrimination into law following historic steps toward equality in the past few years. The Human Rights Campaign has tracked more than 200 anti-LGBT bills — many of them seeking to provide legal cover for people whose religion rejects same-sex marriage, and the very existence of transgender people more broadly — introduced this year in 32 states across the country. Very few of these bills become law. But the ones that do bring significant harm to the LGBT people living in that state and considerable economic consequences for the general population.

RELATED: Amid backlash to anti-gay bills, abortion rights falter

Supporters of Tennessee’s H.B. 1840 say the bill is necessary to protect to the religious beliefs and moral convictions of counselors practicing in the state. They also argue that the bill will allow for patients to receive better treatment from someone more suited to them. But critics say the bill will cut off access to vital healthcare services, disproportionately impacting LGBT youth, who are more vulnerable to bullying and mental illness. More than 50 clergy members have condemned the bill, as have the Tennessee Association for Marriage and Family Therapists, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, the Tennessee Counseling Association, and the American Counseling Association, whose code of ethics states that counselors may not discriminate against clients on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

“This bill is an unprecedented attack on the counseling profession and endangers the health and well-being of Tennesseans,” said Art Terrazas, director of the American Counseling Association, during a press conference Tuesday. “H.B. 1840 puts the government into people’s private lives, right between a person and their healthcare provider — exactly where the government shouldn’t be.”

As in North Carolina and Mississippi -- where executives from GE, the Dow Chemical Company, PepsiCo, Hewlett Packard Enterprises, Hyatt Hotels Corporation, Choice Hotels International, Inc., Levi Strauss & Co., and Whole Foods Market are now calling for the repeal of HB 1523 -- Tennessee's "religious freedom" measure stands to provoke a major corporate backlash. The Volunteer State 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, FedEx communications adviser Jack Pfeiffer said the company "does not tolerate discrimination."

Pfeiffer did not comment specifically on HB 1840, but he added: "We are committed to diversity and inclusion in the workplace and our corporate values are grounded in that commitment."