Patients could be denied service based on religion

Published: Mar. 29, 2016 at 9:23 PM EDT
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A House bill that would allow mental health counselors throughout the state of Tennessee to deny services to someone because of conflicting religious beliefs has the Tennessee Equality Project up in arms.

As introduced, House Bill 1840 declares that no person providing counseling or therapy services shall be required to counsel or serve a client as to goals, outcomes, or behaviors that conflict with a sincerely held religious belief of the counselor or therapist. The bill passed the state senate 27-5 in February.

The Tennessee Equality Project tells Local 8 News that House Bill 1840 regarding mental health counseling and House bill 2414 concerning student access to restrooms would endanger the state's business, tourism, and convention industries.

According to Chris Sanders, Executive Director of the Tennessee Equality Project, “These bills represent not only a direct attack on the LGBT residents of Tennessee, but a direct threat to our state’s reputation as a place that is welcoming for business and tourism. We call on all Tennessee residents, businesses, and lawmakers who share our vision of a fair, hospitable, and welcoming state to reject these discriminatory bills as the wrong direction for our state.”

Representative Jason Zachary calls the Tennessee Equality Project's claim, "baseless." Representative Zachary tells Local 8 News the bill is aiming to reinforce the First Amendment by protecting the religious rights of counselors, allowing them to refer a patient elsewhere. He also expressed that the bill protects patients and helps them to get better care, not denying care.

The American Counseling Association also condemns the bill. The association sent an email out to mental health professionals on March 24, reminding counselors that, "The needs of the client are always a top priority, according to universally taught principles in counselor education, rather than the personally held beliefs of the counselor. This tenet is a civic and professional responsibility for those who are professional counselors."

Others have argued that the bill is a form of government overreach, saying that if it is passed it would micromanage the professional standards and code of ethics followed by counseling professionals.

The ACA Code of Ethics states that professional counselors may not deny services to a client regardless of that person's "age, culture, disability, ethnicity, race, religion/spirituality, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, marital/partnership status, language preference, socioeconomic status, immigration status, or any basis proscribed by law." (Section C.5).

The American Counseling Association calls the bill an, "unprecedented attack on the American Counseling Association's Code of Ethics, something to which nearly 60,000 counselors abide."

House Bill 1840 is sponsored by Representative Dan Howell. Local 8 News has reached out to Representative Howell about the bill. We have yet to receive a response.