April 27, 2016 at 6:34 pm EDT | by Chris Johnson
Tenn. governor signs ‘religious freedom’ bill for therapists

Bill Haslam, gay news, Washington Blade

Gov. Bill Haslam (R-Tenn.) (USDA photo by Lance Cheung; courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam has signed into law a “religious freedom” measure that would allow mental health practitioners to refuse treatment for LGBT patients out of religious objections.

The legislation, Senate Bill 1556, provides immunity under state law to counselors who object to care based on “sincerely held principles,” which would include objections to treating patients because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Haslam, a Republican, said in a statement he signed the measure because he believes health professionals should be able to decline care if it violates their beliefs.

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

Haslam said key provisions in the legislation enabled to sign the legislation. One provision he identified requires therapists to provide care regardless of their beliefs if the person seeking treatment is in imminent danger of harming themselves or others. The other provision requires therapists who feel they can’t treat a patient to coordinate a referral of the client to another practitioner.

Questions had persisted over whether Haslam would sign the legislation after both chambers of the Republican-controlled legislature approved the measure this month. The House passed the bill by a 68-22 vote and the Senate passed it 25-6.

The Tennessee legislation was among the many bills advancing in state legislatures throughout the country seen to enable anti-LGBT discrimination in the name of “religious freedom.” Earlier this month, a proposal to prohibit transgender students from using the restroom in schools consistent with their gender identity was declared dead after the lead sponsor in the House announced she would pull the measure.

Haslam is the fourth governor this year to sign legislation seen to enable anti-LGBT legislation. The others are Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, who signed into law a bill allowing religious organizations at postsecondary schools to refuse treatment to LGBT students; North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, who signed a controversial bill undoing state pro-LGBT ordinances and prohibiting transgender people from using the restroom consistent with their gender identity; and Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, who signed a sweeping “religious freedom” bill enabling individuals and business to refuse services to LGBT people.

Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the ACLU of Tennessee, told Washington Blade the governor’s decision to sign the bill is “disappointing.”

“This measure is rooted in the dangerous misconception that religion can be used as a free pass to discriminate,” Weinberg added. “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. 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.”

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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