Monday evening, the Tennessee legislature passed HB 1840, a measure that will allow therapists and counselors to legally refuse service to the state's LGBT residents. But lawmakers did not pass the bill before agreeing to a change demanded when the measure was introduced last Wednesday; the bill's original language allowed mental health professionals and unlicensed therapists and counselors to cite a "sincerely held and religious belief" when denying service to anyone. The legislature changed that language to "sincerely held principles," thus broadening the scope of reasons someone could be legally refused.
The bill’s opponents believe the bill’s wording allows for discrimination against other groups, including African-Americans. “There’s no litigation on what those ‘principles’ are,” state Sen. Jeff Yarbro (D) said. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) says the bill’s language allows mental health professionals to "refuse to see clients for almost unlimited reasons. For instance, a counselor could refuse to see a lesbian simply because of her sexual orientation, or to see a couple involved in an interfaith relationship. A counselor who is an atheist could refuse to see a Catholic client—and the list goes on." The bill now heads to the desk of Gov. Bill Haslam (R) for his review. Haslam has not indicated whether or not he’ll sign or veto the measure.
HB 1840 is the only bill of its kind in the nation. The American Counseling Association (ACA) says the legislation trounces upon its code of ethics, which states that mental health professionals cannot deny service based on “personally held values, attitudes, beliefs and behaviors.” Sen. Jack Johnson (R) sponsored the measure, but says that it is the ACA that is discriminatory, not the state legislature. Counselors, he says, have always been able to turn away clients if they disagreed with them. “And by the way,” he said, “why should someone seek counseling from a counselor who is unqualified, untrained, and has no experience in a particular subject matter?"
Sen. Jack Johnson. Credit: Source.
The measure holds significant consequences for Tennessee's LGBT community. Nearly a quarter of the state's 6.5 million residents live in rural areas, where access to mental health care is scant. The bill states that a therapist must provide a referral to their client if they refuse service, but it is likely the nearest therapist willing to help an LGBT patient could be hours away. LGBT children and teens have limited access to insurance and transportation and are most at risk. LGBT children and teens are four times more likely than their peers to
attempt suicide; the consequences could be deadly if their parents are unwilling to help or if their parents throw them out of their homes when they learn they are LGBT.
The measure is the most recent in a series of anti-LGBT legislation in the South.
Last month, the North Carolina legislature passed a bill that overturned local gay and transgender protections in a special one-day session that cost taxpayers approximately $42,000. Governor Pat McCrory signed the bill into law mere hours after its introduction. The bill was a direct response to a prior nondiscrimination ordinance in the city of Charlotte, which had offered a wide range of protections.
Pat McCrory. Credit: Source.
Most notably, the Charlotte ordinance allowed citizens to use the restroom that best matches their gender identity. State lawmakers acted ostensibly out of concern that women and children could be victimized by sexual predators posing as transgender to enter women’s restrooms--a fear not grounded in any factual basis, according to critics. Tennessee lawmakers are proposing a similar measure.
The Mississippi Senate also approved a sweeping anti-LGBT religious freedom measure. Republican lawmakers hold a majority in both chambers; they believe the bill addresses issues created for people of faith by the Supreme Court’s 2015 marriage equality ruling. Mississippi House Bill 1523, or the “Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act,” allows individuals, businesses and government employees (including counseling services, foster care and adoption services), nonprofits and other entities to refuse goods and services to LGBT people and anyone who has had extramarital sex on religious grounds. The bill also defines “male” and “female” as someone’s “immutable biological sex as objectively determined by anatomy and genetics at time of birth,” protecting those who decline treatments, surgeries and counseling related to sex reassignment or gender and identity transitioning. HB 1523 prohibits the government from taking action against individuals and faith-based institutions who act according to their “religious convictions.”
And in Georgia, Gov. Nathan Deal (R) vetoed a bill that would have allowed businesses to deny services to LGBT people on religious grounds. “I do not think we have to discriminate
against anyone to protect the faith-based community in the state of Georgia,” Deal said in a statement.
Tennessee’s measure has already received backlash from a member of the national business community. Mitchell Gold, an LGBT activist and the co-founder and chairman of Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams, a North Carolina-based furniture manufacturer, challenged Sen. Johnson’s raucous defense of the bill in a segment on CNN’s New Day. “Instead of the Senator working hard to protect incompetent counselors, how about protecting these kids that are out there?” he demanded. “There's over a million and a half gay teens that need the help and support of adults. They need the common decency of adults. They don't need to be persecuted," Gold said, emphasizing that mental health professionals "have to have continuing education," and "live to the Hippocratic Oath – do no harm."
This backlash can translate into financial consequences for Tennessee. After North Carolina passed its anti-LGBT bill, Bank of America, which has its headquarters in Charlotte, announced it was joining over 80 chief executives, including Twitter and Square CEO Jack Dorsey and Apple CEO Tim Cook, in opposing the legislation. The CEOs voiced their concerns in an open letter to Governor Pat McCrory (R) posted on the Human Rights Campaign website. Bank of America was one of the largest contributors to McCrory’s 2012 gubernatorial campaign.
In Georgia, which passed a “religious freedom” bill that was vetoed by Governor Nathan Deal, telecom company 373K decided to move its headquarters to Nevada. “I’m gay, our CFO is gay, we have people from every walk of life working here,” said co-founder Kelvin Williams in a telephone interview with The New Civil Rights Movement. “I’ve got Muslims, Buddhists, atheists here. We’ve got great Christians working for us. They’ve never thought of not serving anyone—that’s not the message of Christ.” Many prominent actors and directors, including Rob Reiner, Anne Hathaway and Julianne Moore, threatened to take their business elsewhere. The Walt Disney Corporation and its subsidiary, Marvel, echoed this statement, pledging to relocate offices “should any legislation allowing discriminatory practices be signed into state law.”
Kelvin Williams. Credit: Source.
Gov. Haslam may face a similar bruising battle, if the experience of other states is any indication. After Indiana passed a “religious freedom” law that critics claimed discriminated against LGBT persons, a fierce backlash from business and the tourist industry, along with a trending hashtag #BoycottIndiana, forced the governor and state legislatures there to add an amendment clarifying that nothing in the law was intended to permit discrimination. As tensions continue to mount in North Carolina, it is likely Tennessee now will face similar pressures.