Therapists’ right to reject patients moves along

The state House Health Committee advanced a controversial bill Wednesday that would allow therapists and counselors to refuse to see clients whose cases violate their principles, according to The Tennessean.

The bill (HB1840) protects the professionals from repercussions, such as a civil lawsuit or criminal action, if they opt for a referral. The Health Committee voted 11-5 in support of the legislation, which is sponsored by Rep. Dan Howell, R-Georgetown.

Howell launched the almost two-hour discussion on the bill with a detailed explanation of where it came from and why it’s needed. He cited a court case prompted by a Michigan counseling student’s refusal to see a client whose same-sex relationship violated her religious beliefs.

“This bill will not allow a counselor’s religious rights to be discriminated against while mandating that the counselor make an appropriate referral of the client to someone whose values and beliefs are more compatible with the client,” Howell said. “That just makes sense to me.”

The legislation was prompted by a change to the American Counseling Association’s code of ethics in 2014. The state adopts the association’s code of ethics. The new provision at the heart of the issue specifically states that a counselor or therapist cannot refuse to treat a client based solely on his “personally held values, attitudes, beliefs and behaviors.”

While supporters argue the bill strikes a balance between the rights of the counselors and the client, opponents call it discriminatory, saying it takes control of care away from clients and sets a bad precedent.

Companion legislation has already passed the Senate. However, the bills differ, with the House legislation amended to change “sincerely held religious beliefs” to “sincerely held principles.”

The bill has spurred hours of debate, sometimes antagonistic, as it has wound its way through the House’s subcommittee and committee process. Wednesday’s hearing was no different.