NASHVILLE (CN) — Tennessee's Republican Gov. Bill Haslam signed a bill into law that allows counselors and therapists to refuse patients based on their religious beliefs.
The bill, HB 1840, was sponsored by Rep. Dan Howell, R-Georgetown. It was passed by the Tennessee General Assembly earlier this month, and signed by the governor on Wednesday.
The legislation's text states that, "No counselor or therapist 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 new law shields counselors and therapists from civil lawsuits or criminal charges for their refusal to serve clients based on their views.
Haslam said he signed the bill, also known as SB 1556, because it does not apply when a person seeking counseling is in imminent danger, and it requires that a turned-away client must be referred to another counselor or therapist.
"The substance of this bill doesn't address a group, issue or belief system. Rather, it allows counselors — just as we allow other professionals like doctors and lawyers — to refer a client to another counselor when the goals or behaviors would violate a sincerely held principle," the governor said in a statement. "I believe it is reasonable to allow these professionals to determine if and when an individual would be better served by another counselor better suited to meet his or her needs."
The Tennessee Equality Project, an LGBT advocacy group, said it did not get the veto it had hoped for.
"We know the governor carefully considered his decision, but the reality we now face is that counselors will be able to discriminate against clients based on the counselor's principles," the group said in a statement. "We continue to worry particularly about rural LGBT people who may not have adequate resources for counseling in their communities."
In response to the new law, the Tennessee Equality Project launched Counseling Unconditionally, an initiative that allows mental health professionals to identify themselves as practitioners who will not turn away clients based on their values and principles.
"We know that the vast majority of professionals are eager to help everyone who walks through their door," the group said. "Their compassion and commitment to ethical standards of care can help repair some of the damage this legislation has caused."
Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Tennessee, said in a statement that her organization is "disappointed that the governor has chosen to sign this troubling bill into law."
"This measure is rooted in the dangerous misconception that religion can be used as a free pass to discriminate. Allowing counselors to treat some potential clients differently from others based on their personal beliefs defies professional standards and could cause significant harm to vulnerable people," Weinberg said. "This law is yet another attack on the LGBT community in the wake of marriage equality — but we will continue to fight until LGBT Tennesseans are treated fairly and equally in every part of their lives and in the greater community."
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