- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 28, 2016

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam on Wednesday evening signed a bill into law allowing therapists and counselors to decline to serve clients when doing so would violate their beliefs.

Senate Bill 1556 allows mental health professionals to refuse service when the “goals, outcomes, or behaviors” of the client conflict with their own “sincerely held principles.” Gay-rights groups have denounced the legislation as a license to discriminate against the LGBT community.

Mr. Haslam, a Republican, said in a statement that two recent revisions to the bill addressed concerns he had with the legislation. The first requires therapists and counselors to treat those who are in “imminent danger of harming themselves or others,” while the second requires mental health professionals to refer rejected clients to other counselors for treatment.

Although the bill was initially conceived as an effort to protect religious counselors in the wake of the legalization of gay marriage, the final draft of the bill does not include any references to religious beliefs.

“The substance of this bill doesn’t address a group, issue or belief system,” the governor said. “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.”

ACLU of Tennessee Executive Director Hedy Weinberg said she 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,” Ms. Weinberg said. “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.”

Psychologist James T. Berry, who testified in support of the bill, told the Tennessean he is relieved by the governor’s decision, saying it protects counselors from viewpoint discrimination. Mr. Berry said he is happy to treat gay people suffering from depression or mental ailments, but he said providing sex therapy to unmarried or same-sex couples would violate his religious beliefs.

“For the clients, it gets them to a therapist that does not have a core value conflict,” Mr. Berry said. “That way they won’t get mixed messages, they won’t be confused. To not refer is unethical in my view.”

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