Spotlight On: Tennessee's Discriminatory Healthcare Bills

Today, we continue our coverage of bills that we expect to dominate the state legislatures by focusing on two related sets of bills in Tennessee. HB 566/SB 397 and HB 1840/SB 1556 would both allow individuals to withhold counseling services—an important, and sometimes lifesaving, healthcare service—from certain patients. And we know that those who would be most likely to be refused services are LGBT patients.  

HB 566/SB 397 would provide students in a counseling, social work, or psychology program the right to refuse to provide counseling or other services to patients if it conflicts with a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction of the student. HB 1840/SB 1556 would provide a similar religious exemption to licensed counselors and therapists. 

If these bills pass, a counseling student or professional therapist could refuse to serve: 

  • a suicidal teenager because he is gay;
  • a client seeking marriage counseling because he is in an interracial marriage;
  • a mother because she is single;
  • a woman in an abusive relationship because she is seeking to end her marriage;
  • or a man who holds a faith contrary to that of the student.

The grounds for refusal and the number of clients who could be affected are limitless, leaving clients with fewer mental health resources—and perhaps no services in an emergency situation—as well as the indignity of being refused treatment.

Clients seeking out a counselor or therapist, of course, are often in a vulnerable place. A counselor’s refusal to serve clients, even if accompanied by a referral, can have a negative impact their mental health and could exacerbate the very issue for which they are seeking counseling. This is especially true if the client interprets the decision as a rejection.

These bills also directly contradict the American Counseling Association (ACA) Code of Ethics, which encourages counselors to be aware of their own values, attitudes, and beliefs, but prohibits them from imposing them on their clients. The ACA guidelines also explain that counselors may not “condone or engage in discrimination based on age, culture, disability, ethnicity, race, religion/spirituality, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, marital status/partnership, language preference, socioeconomic status, or any basis proscribed by law.”  These bills, however, would allow counseling students to use religion to discriminate against their own patients.         

HB 566/SB 397 was introduced in 2015 and has carried over to the present session. HB 1840/SB 1556 was introduced this week. We will continue monitoring these bills to make sure we are doing everything we can to stop them. You can track these bills, and others, using our State Legislative Tracker.