On Tuesday, the Tennessee House Health Subcommittee heard testimony on HB1840 / SB1556, which would allow counselors and therapists to ignore professional standards of care, making it legal for them to refuse to serve any Tennessean on the basis of the counselor’s religious belief.

If passed, this bill would allow licensed counselors in private practice to use their own religious beliefs as an excuse for terminating care or referring away clients because of moral objections to how they identify This law could negatively impact LGBT people in Tennessee, particularly those living in one of the 63 areas in the state that are currently underserved by mental health providers. Additionally, referring a client, particularly at a time of crisis or after prolonged period of building trust, can have damaging impact to an individual's mental health.

Speaking against the bill were several leaders in counseling and mental health from Tennessee and a representative from the American Counseling Association (ACA), which sets the professional Code of Ethics and standards of practice that are considered the gold standard for licensed professional counselors. Dr. Lynn Linde, Senior Director of the Center for Counseling

Practice, Research, and Policy at the ACA spoke at length about the reasoned process that the ACA undertakes every 10 years to revise and strengthen its guiding principles in the Code of Ethics. The three year process for revising the 2014 Code of Ethics included a year of drafting, town hall meetings around the country, posting drafts online for comment from members of ACA and over a year for revisions before lawyers reviewed and then the Code was adopted by the ACA Governance Board.

By passing HB1840 / SB1556, legislators in Tennessee would be eschewing this professional standards process to provide counselors in private practice in Tennessee with the ability to refuse care in conflict with the 2014 Code of Ethics without fear of lawsuit or loss of their license.

Dr. Shawn Spurgeon, a professor and Program Coordinator for Clinical Mental Health Counseling at UT Knoxville, testified to the committee in great detail about the amount of training that all counseling students receive ranging from a commitment to diversity, to honoring and understanding their own values, and about making a commitment to their clients. He emphasized that counseling is not about the counselor but about the needs of the client, and so counselors are taught to ‘walk in empathy’ with their clients. He also stated that counselors often work with some of the most marginalized people in society and its their responsibility to help them.

The only witness testifying in support of the bill was a faith based counselor who was identified as a member of the Family Action Council of Tennessee, asking the committee to pass the bill so that he could put his own beliefs before the needs of his client -- which is what the ACA Code of Ethics discourages.

Chris Sanders of the Tennessee Equality Project has been working to oppose this House bill and its companion bill in the Senate, stating, "SB1556, the Counseling Discrimination bill, puts LGBT people in Tennessee in danger by adding stigma and religious judgment when people are seeking help.  We are particularly concerned about the impact this bill would have on rural LGBT people who might have few options for qualified counselors in their area."

At the end of a nearly two-hour meeting, the sponsor of HB1840, Rep Howell asked the committee to pull the bill from consideration this week while he works on further amendments, but the House Health Subcommittee could consider the bill again next week. SB1556 was slightly amended and has already passed the Tennessee Senate.

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