Ad campaign opposes bill on therapists and religion

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A coalition of groups has launched an ad campaign against House Speaker Beth Harwell and other lawmakers over a controversial bill that would allow counselors to refuse to treat patients on the basis of “sincerely held religious beliefs.”

One of the online ads addresses Harwell and warns that “businesses won’t come to a state that discriminates.”

Opponents say the proposal (SB1556) would allow therapists to turn away people in crisis because they are gay, transgender or practice a different religion.

The American Counseling Association, which is part of the coalition taking aim at the measure, has called the bill an unprecedented attack on its profession.

“People are looking to counselors as health care providers and the government shouldn’t step in between a health care provider and a patient. It’s just wrong,” said Art Terrazas, director of government affairs for the American counseling associations.

Republican Sen. Jack Johnson of Franklin, who sponsored the bill, has said that the legislation is an effort to overturn a 2014 change in the American Counseling Association’s code of ethics.

The proposal passed in the Senate last month. After it passed, an attorney for the gay rights group Lambda Legal said that while proposals targeting counseling rules have come in other states, Tennessee may be the first to have it pass in a legislative chamber.

This is the second time in a month that an ad campaign has targeted Speaker Harwell. A group that supports Gov. Bill Haslam’s failed effort to expand the state’s Medicaid program launched a statewide billboard campaign against Harwell earlier this month.