Under the bill, no counselor or therapist shall be required to serve a client as to goals, outcomes, or behaviors that conflict with a sincerely held religious belief of the counselor, provided an appropriate referral is made.
Under current state regulations, a counselor or therapist is potentially subject to discipline for referring a client whose goals and desired outcomes conflict with a counselor’s religious beliefs, even if the counselor lacks the competence to treat such a patient.
This is an important bill to safeguard a counselor or therapist’s religious beliefs and moral convictions. It protects the right of conscience of the counselor but also allows the clients to receive treatment from someone who is better suited to treat them.
Why is this bill necessary?
Tennessee requires that all licensed professional counselors comply with the code of ethics issued by the American Counseling Association (ACA). In 2014, the ACA amended its code with regard to referrals, prohibiting a counselor from referring a client based on a counselor’s “personally held values.”
This amendment by the ACA was in direct response to a 6th Circuit Court of Appeals decision in Ward v. Polite, which upheld the right of a Christian counselor to refer a gay/lesbian client if the therapy sought required the counselor to affirm a same-sex relationship in violation of her beliefs.
The court ruling was, in part, based on the fact that “The ACA code of ethics . . . does not prohibit values-based referrals.” As a result, the ACA wanted to make it clear that referring clients with “issues that went against [the counselor’s] basic biblical beliefs . . . is clearly inappropriate and a violation of the ACA Code of Ethics.”
The ACA Code of Ethics was amended to specifically target Christian counselors. However, any sincerely held religious belief or personal value would be subject to these violations, so it is important to preserve the rights of counselors to practice their profession according to the dictates of their conscience.
Does the referral provision under the bill benefit clients as well?
Yes. Clients will receive treatment from a counselor who is sympathetic toward their desired goal or outcome.
The ACA wants counselors to “bracket” or suspend their personal values that are not in line with the goals of the client. A counselor “bracketing” their values is much less likely to adequately treat a client than one who fully supports and personally believes in the client’s desired outcome.
A counselor who has not regularly treated clients with behaviors or goals that conflict with a counselor’s personally held values is less likely to be competent to treat such a client. However, according to the ACA, this still may not be grounds for referral. A client deserves to be treated by a counselor who not only sympathizes with their issues, but is also experienced and competent to offer effective treatment.
Does this bill allow for discrimination against any people group?
No. This bill would not protect a counselor that categorically refused to treat a people group (e.g. a Jewish counselor that refused to treat any Muslim client for any reason). It only protects a counselor from treating a client “as to goals, outcomes, or behaviors that conflict”—in other words, this bill would not protect a counselor who refused to help a person contemplating suicide or some other similar emergency situation.
What about clients in extremely rural areas where there are very few counselors?
The bill only applies IF a counselor coordinates a referral to another counselor who will provide the counseling or therapy. If a referral cannot be made, the bill does not apply.
Isn’t this bill just an anti-gay or anti-same-sex “marriage” bill?
Not at all. It would actually protect a gay or lesbian counselor who was faced with counseling a client that wanted a counselor to assure them that their views against a same-sex “marriage” entered into by the client’s child were okay. In such a case, he or she could refer the client to another counselor who is more comfortable treating such a client.
The bill would apply to all religions and personally held beliefs, not just Christian ones. It would protect a Jewish counselor from treating a Muslim client desiring jihad, and or an atheist counselor from being required to affirm a client’s faith.
In the Ward case, the judge wrote that “the point of referral is to avoid imposing values”—because counselors should not impose their values on others, referral needs to be allowed.
How are referrals made?
No change. The method of referral is still the same in accordance with the ACA rules.
Passed the Senate 27-5 and the House 68-22. Signed into law by Gov. Haslam.