Tennessee Governor Signs Bill That Could Harm LGBT Individuals Seeking Mental Healthcare

On Wednesday, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam (R) signed HB 1840/SB 1556, a bill that allows a therapist or counselor to refuse to treat clients whose "goals, outcomes, or behaviors... conflict with a sincerely held principle" of that mental health professional. The bill—now law—will endanger some of the most vulnerable Tennesseans: those in need of mental healthcare and treatment.

“The substance of this bill doesn’t address a group, issue or belief system,” Haslam said in a statement. “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's words make this bill seem benign, but it isn’t. In fact, the legislation allows mental health professionals to discriminate against LGBT individuals, especially those who live in areas where healthcare is scarce, like rural communities.

One only needs to look at supporters of Tennessee's bill to see the legislation's true intentions. The Family Action Council of Tennessee, a main proponent of the bill and member of the Family Research Council, once protested the American Psychiatry Association’s decision to “declassify homosexuality as a mental health condition.” In 2014, the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), another supporter of Tennessee’s bill, sent letters to states where marriage equality was legal insisting that clerks and government officials who handled marriage certificates did not need to serve LGBT couples if same-sex marriage violated their “sincerely held religious or moral beliefs about marriage.” Currently, the ADF is representing business owners who refuse to serve same-sex couples, including Colorado’s Masterpiece Cakeshop.

The bill doesn't even have the widespread support from the very mental health professionals it purportedly seeks to protect. According to Religion News Service, several pastoral counselors conveyed "significant opposition" to HB 1840/SB 1556, arguing that it was unnecessary.

“Our code of ethics says if we feel we can’t objectively counsel a person for any reason, then we should refer them to someone else,” Chris O’Rear, president of the Tennessee Association of Pastoral Therapists (which takes no official stance on the bill); the director of Insight Counseling Centers in Nashville; and an ordained Baptist, told RNS. “But sometimes a client doesn’t have a choice because perhaps they don’t have many options where they live. I don’t think these people should be turned away in that case.” 

The state's leading secular counseling organization agrees, and adds that patients are the real victims. According to the Tennessee Counseling Association, a branch of the American Counseling Association, the bill could harm vulnerable individuals. 

"Only about 60% of Americans who need mental health care receive it. Then only about 26% of people who get referred end up receiving care," the organization said in a statement. "The cracks in the mental health care system are too large to risk someone who has reached out for help falling through them because of the counselor’s personal beliefs." 

The Tennessee Counseling Association also suggests that if a person wants to help others but does not wish to adhere to the professional obligations of a counselor, there are other professional options open to them. For clients, however, being refused service during such a vulnerable time can be personally damaging.

Because both religious and secular mental health professionals have decried this bill, Governor Haslam's assertion that HB 1840/SB 1556 is necessary seems spurious. It seems that he really signed this bill to prove a point: LGBT rights may dominate the national conversation, but advocates of so-called "traditional values" will not go quietly into the night.