By Erik Schelzig and Sheila Burke, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A Tennessee bill that would allow mental health therapists to turn away patients based on the counselors’ religious beliefs and personal principles passed Monday and is on its way to the governor.
The American Counseling Association said Tennessee would be the only state to allow counselors to refuse to treat patients if the bill is signed into law. The organization called the measure an “unprecedented attack” on its profession.
The measure is part of a wave of legislation across the country that opponents say legalizes discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. Supporters say it takes into account the rights of everyone.
In February, the Senate passed the bill that could allow counselors to turn away patients based on “sincerely held religious beliefs.” Last week the House passed a version that would allow therapists to turn away patients based on the “sincerely held principles of the counselor or therapist.”
The measure will not allow therapists to turn away people who are in imminent danger of harming themselves or others.
On Monday, the Senate agreed to the change that dropped religious beliefs and instead added the broader language of “principles.”
Sen. Jeff Yarbro said the change “creates a lot of vagueness” in the bill. The Nashville Democrat said that although the issue of sincerely held religious beliefs has been the subject of legal cases for decades, he called the idea of a sincerely held principle an “unheard-of concept” as a legal matter.
Yarbro said that if the bill becomes law, therapists could choose any reason not to provide services, including race, religion and gender.
“There’s lots different principles that come into play, and there’s no limitation on what those principles are, other than it has to be ‘sincerely held,'” Yarbro said.
Republican Sen. Richard Briggs said the current standards force therapists to set aside their personal convictions. Briggs, a Knoxville doctor, said that that would be akin to requiring doctors to go against their principles in providing services they object to.
“As a medical professional, abortions are legal. If someone comes to me and says ‘I want an abortion.’ Should I have to do that if it’s against my principles and I don’t believe that?” Briggs said.
“What if someone comes to me as a physician and says, ‘We want you to humanely participate in an execution?'” he said. “I don’t think that I’m an unethical person because I said I don’t want to participate in executions.”
Tennessee Republican Gov. Bill Haslam told reporters last week that he can “understand the reasoning” behind the bill but wanted to see the final version before he decides whether to sign it into law.