NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee's Republican governor said Wednesday that he signed a bill into law that allows mental health counselors to refuse to treat patients based on the therapist's religious or personal beliefs.
"As a professional I should have the right to decide if my clients end goals don't match with my beliefs — I should have the right to say somebody else can better serve them," Gov. Bill Haslam said in a phone interview with The Associated Press. "Lawyers can do that, doctors can do that. Why would we take this one class of professionals and say you can't do that?"
The American Counseling Association called the legislation an "unprecedented attack" on the counseling profession and said Tennessee was the only state to ever pass such a law. Opponents say the legislation is part of a wave of bills around the nation that legalizes discrimination against gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people.
Haslam said he consulted several counselors on both side of the issue and that they all told him that "this isn't about taking on or not taking on LGBT clients, because even the ones who said they think the bill is needed said they never actually turned someone down for this reason."
The governor said the decision by the ACA to update its 2014 ethics code took away therapists' ability to make decisions based on their values. Haslam emphasized that the law only applies to counselors in private practice and does not allow them to turn away people who are in imminent danger of harming themselves or others. It also requires that the counselors refer patients to other therapists if they decline to treat them.
The ACA has called the legislation discriminatory.
"Were just profoundly disappointed in the governor's decision and very disheartened by the fact that this was even passed by a legislative body anywhere in this country in the 21st century," Art Terrazas, director of governmental affairs for the ACA, said. He said the governor was wrong because doctors and other professionals can't just refuse to help people because of their personal beliefs. Vulnerable people, Terrazas said, will be harmed as a result of a measure that gives therapists wide room to refuse to treat people.
The law says licensed counselors in private practice cannot be forced to serve a client as to the "goals, outcomes, or behaviors that conflict with the sincerely-held principles" of the therapist. It also shields therapists who use the law from being sued, prosecuted or punished by a licensing authority.
Supporters say the bill protects the rights of therapists and allows them to refer patients to more appropriate counselors.
The sponsor of the bill said the law restores what counselors did prior to the ACA updating its ethics code.
"That's what they had to do prior to 2014,' Sen Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, said. "And keep in mind: no one, including the American Counseling Association, has been able to show that anyone was harmed by it."
The ACA vowed to work to change the law.
"Even though this law is now signed and on the books, Terrazas said, it doesn't mean it cannot be repealed and doesn't mean that we're going to stop fighting."