What, may you ask, is preying on the minds of Tennessee legislators in the run-up to the legislative session? Is school bus safety and seat belts likely to be their top priority? Or perhaps legislating a uniform system for evacuation alerts in the state? Or even a response to Gov. Bill Haslam’s gas tax plan?
Apparently, the top priority is further expanding counselors’ ability to refuse to treat gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people.
On Friday, Republican Sen. Jack Jonson of Nashville filed the first bill in the Senate, forbidding the Board for Professional Counselors, Marital and Family Therapists, and Clinical Pastoral Therapists from adopting any rules based on a national association’s code of ethics. It also allows counselors to refuse to treat patients based on their “sincerely held beliefs” rather than “principles.” The counselor would have to refer the person to another therapist.
For many years, Tennessee’s counseling board had basically adopted the American Counseling Association Code of Ethics, which already provides a process for referring a case to another counselor but does not allow it to be based solely on the counselor’s own “personally held beliefs.”
A new law passed last year allowed for counselors to refuse to treat patients for the first time based on personal “principles,” but had been amended to remove the word “beliefs.” It never specifically mentioned LGBTQ people, but that was the focus of the debate on it.
It happened during a period when state legislatures across the country, reacting to the U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage, sought new ways to limit the rights of LGBTQ people. North Carolina passed one of the most extreme measures, forbidding cities from offering discrimination protection to LGBTQ people and requiring that transgender people use the bathroom of the sex printed on their birth certificate. N.C. Governor Pat McCrory signed the law and vowed to use taxpayer money to defend it, even as the state lost valuable conventions and sports events in protest, McCrory officially lost his re-election bid this week after a tight race led to an extended ballot count.
The Tennessee Legislature backed away from a vote on a similar, if somewhat less stringent, bathroom bill. But it approved the counseling bill and Gov. Bill Haslam signed it. Nashville lost several planned conventions that moved elsewhere in protest after the law passed.
The Tennessee Counseling Association, the Tennessee Association of Marriage and Family Therapists, a group of UT applied psychology professors, and LGBTQ advocacy groups all condemned the bill before it passed, calling it discriminatory and potentially dangerous. (An amendment was added to forbid counselors from turning away anyone who is suicidal.)
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