Advancing bill lets therapists decline to counsel gays

Tennessee therapists and marriage counselors with “sincerely held” religious beliefs could turn away gay patients without risk of legal consequences under legislation approved by the Senate Health Committee Wednesday on a 7-1 vote, reports the Times-Free Press.

The bill seeks to protect conservative therapists from 2014 changes in the American Counseling Association’s code of ethics. The changes direct that “counselors refrain from referring prospective and current clients based solely on the counselor’s personally held values, attitudes, beliefs and behaviors.”

While it doesn’t mention lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons, the Tennessee Equality Project, which advocates for gays, said that’s the bill’s motivation.

Sen. Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, said he brought the bill in response to concerns raised by a practitioner in his Middle Tennessee district.

The bill (SB1556) says that so long as the reluctant practitioners refer the client to another qualified professional, they will be protected from suspensions as well as any legal penalties.

The Tennessee Association for Marriage and Family Therapists opposes the legislation.

“This bill is in direct opposition to the ethical code of the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy and potentially harmful to clients,” the group said in a statement. “Our mandate to do no harm to the consumer, we believe, would be violated.”

Several therapists objected to the legislation in testimony before the committee with one saying, “They can keep their belief system and still offer good counseling but not based on their religious beliefs.”

Johnson said, “I appreciate their thoughts and their input. I’ll just say that there are plenty who are in their profession across the state, many of whom have contacted you, who have a starkly different viewpoint of this bill.”

..Committee Chairman Rusty Crowe, R-Johnson City, noted that while the “prime directive is to serve people,” he believes “we have a duty to protect the beliefs of people and that’s where we are.”

“I don’t see the big deal here,” he said.