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Experts Blast TN Bill That Allows Counselors to Deny Service

Several national organizations are protesting a bill that would allow counselors in Tennessee to deny service based on their religious beliefs. (AlachuaCounty/flickr.com)
Several national organizations are protesting a bill that would allow counselors in Tennessee to deny service based on their religious beliefs. (AlachuaCounty/flickr.com)
March 31, 2016

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Tennessee lawmakers are considering legislation that would allow counselors to deny services and refer clients based on the provider's religious beliefs.

The bill, HB 1840, is prompting such national groups as the American Counseling Association (ACA) and American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) to speak out against the legislation.

Art Terrazas, ACA director of government affairs, said this is the first piece of legislation nationwide that seeks to nullify a portion of the counseling profession's code of ethics.

"We're getting singled out in a state that, really, we see has a lot of mental health shortage areas," said Terrazas. "And if that person can't seek treatment from a counselor because the counselor decides to deny them service, then that person is going to suffer from that."

According to Terrazas, ethical guidelines mandate that counselors treat a person when they seek help regardless of the person's age, culture, identity, sexual orientation, immigration or socioeconomic status.

HB 1840's companion bill, SB 1556, has already passed the state Senate and is awaiting action by the House.

Supporters of the legislation say the bill protects the constitutional rights of providers.

Chris Sanders, executive director of the Tennessee Equality Project, said aside from the legislation violating a professional code of ethics, it's important to remember the number of Tennesseans who live in rural communities where alternative counseling options may not be available.

"If counselors begin to turn them away, it may be several miles for them to get to the next counselor," said Sanders. "And in a crisis when they're reaching out and ready to get help, being turned away is the most devastating thing that can happen to them."

Terrazas added, in a time when there are regular instances of someone in need of mental help harming themselves or others, it is imperative to make sure counseling is readily available when someone asks for help.

"Look, everybody is somebody's child, somebody's brother, somebody's sister, somebody's grandchild," he said. "And when something happens to them if they harm themselves or harm other people, that is going to have an impact."

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention released a statement expressing its opposition to the legislation.

It reads in part, "There are not enough mental health providers in our country, and we need all of them to practice what they've been trained to do. The lives of the people of Tennessee depend on them."

Stephanie Carson, Public News Service - TN