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Tennessee "Religious freedom to discriminate" law

Part 1 of three parts.

2016-JAN to APR: Bill HB 1840
becomes law on 2016-APR-27.

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Background information:

Bill HB 1840 was prepared by the Tennessee Department of Mental Health & Substance Abuse Services (TDMHSAS), which is part of the state government. The bill, which was later signed into law, gives mental health counselors and therapists the option of discriminating against a potential client by refusing to treat them, and referring them to another counselor if the original counselor believes that his or her religious and other beliefs cause them difficulties with the client.

According to their web site, the department is:

"... the state’s mental health and substance abuse authority. The department is responsible for planning, setting policy and quality standards, system monitoring and evaluation, and advocating for persons of all ages who have mental illness, serious emotional disturbance, or substance abuse disorders. TDMHSAS annually assesses the public's needs for mental health, substance abuse, and recovery service supports." 1 (Emphasis not in the original)

For a reason or reasons unknown, the Department decided to violate their mandate which calls upon them to advocate on behalf of "persons seeking counseling." The Department prepared a bill which has since become law. It allows counselors, therapists, etc. to use their personal religious, moral, and ethical beliefs to discriminate against potential clients by refusing to help them and instead referring them to another therapist. Thus a counselor could deny help to a person who belongs to a different religious denomination, or to another religion, or is an Agnostic or Atheist, or Secular Humanist, etc. A counselor could tell potential clients to "get lost" if the latter have a lesbian, gay, or bisexual orientation, if they are a transgender individual or a transsexual. A male counselor could deny help to all female clients on the basis that his religious beliefs prohibit him from being alone in the same room with a woman other than his wife. Rejection based on sexual activity by an unmarried client, or even a prior divorce could also presumably be grounds for rejection.

On 2016-JAN-11, the Department crafted Bill HB 1840 which:

"... declares that no person providing counseling or therapy services shall be required to counsel or serve a client as to goals, outcomes, or behaviors that conflict with a sincerely held religious belief of the counselor or therapist." 2

The key passage of the bill stated:

"No counselor or therapist providing counseling or therapy services shall be required to counsel or serve a client as to goals, outcomes, or behaviors that conflict with a sincerely held religious belief of the counselor or therapist; provided, that the counselor or therapist coordinates a referral of the client to another counselor or therapist who will provide the counseling or therapy." 2

The term "religious belief" was later replaced with a more general term "sincerely held principles."

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The bill nullifies the American Counseling Association's Code of Ethics in the state. That Code was amended in 2014 to state that:

"Counselors refrain from referring prospective and current clients based solely on the counselor's personally held values, attitudes, beliefs , and behaviors." 3

The bill amends Tennessee Code Annotated, Title 4; Title 49 and Title 63.

A companion, Bill SB 1556, was sponsored in the Senate by Senator Curtis Johnson (R).

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Webmaster's comment: [bias alert]

Bill HB 1840 will make it very difficult for some people to obtain counseling. In rural areas of the state, a counselor without religious bias who would be willing to help a rejected client might be many miles away -- out of reach for some persons needing help.

On the other hand, it might be better for a counselor whose religious beliefs cause them to want to discriminate against a particular client if the latter were referred to a different counselor where they would probably receive more positive, caring and empathic help.

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Many groups expressed their opposition to HB 1840:

  • Rebekah Price, writing for the Elizabethton Star, noted that:

    "Officials with the American Counseling Association (ACA), Tennessee Counselors Association (TCA), American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Tennessee Association of Marriage and Family Therapists, Tennessee Equality Project and others are strongly opposing it, calling it 'Hate Bill 1840."

    "On Monday [APR-04] they lobbied publicly in Nashville and launched a media campaign against it saying:

    'Businesses won’t come to a state that discriminates' and

    'Your religious beliefs could disqualify you from getting the help you need. Tell your House Rep. HB1840 is wrong!'. 3

    They said the effects on mental health, business and healthcare funding for the state could be detrimental."

  • Art Terrazas, Director of Government Affairs at The American Counseling Association (ACA) said:

    "Passing this legislation is not only morally wrong and a dangerous precedent, but could also result in costly unintended consequences for Tennessee, including for the hundreds of thousands of state residents who rely on accessible and professional counseling services.

    As we’ve seen in states across the country, including most recently North Carolina and Georgia, discriminatory bills are bad for business. Bills like H.B. 1840 hurt both the economic strength of the states in which they are passed, and, most importantly, the people victimized under the laws. Tennessee can’t afford Hate Bill 1840. ... It puts the government between citizens and their therapists."

    The ACA has been scheduled to hold their annual convention at the Music City Center during 2017-APR. They are actively considering relocating their convention because of HB 1840. Their web site states:

    "WARNING: In light of recent legislative actions in Tennessee, ACA is currently weighing options regarding the location of the 2017 Conference and Expo. More information coming soon." 4

Joel Ebert, et al. at The Tennessean wrote:

    "At stake is a conference that the group says would bring more than 3,000 conventioneers to Nashville, generate up to $4 million in combined local and state tax revenue and have a local economic impact of up to $10 million." 4

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  • Lisa Henderson, a Licensed Professional Counselor and president-elect of the Tennessee Counselors Association (TCA), said:

    "The Code of Ethics was open to public comment prior to its induction. Prior to this bill being brought forward, there was no concern brought to our board. It went straight into bill format, so this climate of distancing ourselves from the people with whom we disagree is counterproductive.”

  • The Human Rights Campaign is a leading national group promoting equality for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and transsexual community (LGBT). They referred to HB 1840 as: the "Counseling Discrimination Bill." 5

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This topic continues in the next essay

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. The Tennessee Department of Mental Health & Substance Abuse Services' home page is at:
  2. "House Bill 1840 by Howell," Open:States, at: Click on "View latest bill text"
  3. Rebekah Price, "," Elizabethton Star, 2016-APR-05, at:
  4. "Counseling group considers relocating Nashville conference over therapist bill," The Tennessean, 2016-APR-28, at:
  5. "American Counseling Association needs counseling over counseling bill," Family Action Council of Tennessee," 2016-APR-29, at:

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How you may have arrived here:

Home > Religious freedom > Freedom to Discriminate > here

Home > Important essays > Religious freedom > Freedom to Discriminate > here

Home > Religious information > Religious freedom > Freedom to Discriminate > here

Home > Human rights > Religious freedom > Freedom to Discriminate > here

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Copyright 2016 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Original posting: 2016-MAY-03
Latest update : 2016-MAY-03
Author: B.A. Robinson

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