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Religious Tolerance logo

Tennessee "Religious freedom to discriminate" law

Part 2 of three parts.

2016-JAN to APR: Support & opposition
to Bill HB 1840. Bill signed into law on
2016-APR-27. Reactions to the law.

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This topic is a continuation of the previous essay

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Groups opposed to to HB 1840 (Cont'd):

  • The American Civil Liberties Union, the leading national civil rights group, said that:

    "This measure is rooted in the dangerous misconception that religion can be used as a free pass to discriminate." 1

  • Frontier Health is a counseling agency in Carter County, TN. Its president and CEO, Dr. Teresa Kidd, said:

    "At Frontier Health, we have a strong non-discrimination policy. ... No one who is interested in treatment is denied services. ... We do not believe that H.B. 1840 is necessary legislation. 2

  • Barney Self, president of the Tennessee Association of Marriage and Family Therapists, said:

    "The limits of determination of sincerely held religious beliefs reside with the therapist, and that’s a problem because that could be anything. This bill is totally and completely fear-driven. It does not address a need that exists. Nothing has ever been brought before the board to address this. They are doing collateral damage to people, perhaps unintentionally, which is why it has been titled the Hate Bill. ..."

  • "I don't see any problem with the factors already in place. I've found this whole process to be very hurtful, damaging and risky for the state." 2

  • Christopher Sanders is the executive director of the Tennessee Equality Project (TEP) -- a LGBT-positive group. He commented:

    "If a counselor is able to turn away LGBT clients, maybe that client has to go several miles to get a counselor who will see him or her, and some don’t have access to transportation or funding."

An earlier report by the Tennessee Department of Education revealed that about 80% of openly LGBT students are bullied in public schools. An amendment to HB 1840 had been submitted to the House Health Committee when they were reviewing the bill. It would have altered the bill so that it would not apply to minors suffering from bullying. This amendment was rejected by the House Health Committee.

Sanders pointed out that therapists already have had a system in place for referring clients which has served well. He suggested that therapists who follow the new law with referrals might endanger their accreditation by national counseling agencies.

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Support for HB 1840:

  • Main support for the bill came from three evangelical Christian groups:

    • The Family Action Council of Tennessee (FACT) is a conservative Christian group whose mission is "To equip Tennesseans and their public officials to effectively promote and defend a culture that values God's design for the family, for the sake of the common good." 1

    • The Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF). 3 They are a national conservative Christian legal defense group that has been very active recently in defending the rights of therapists, civil servants, and others to discriminate on the basis of their religious beliefs. Much of the Alliance's efforts target the LGBT community.

    • The state affiliate of Focus on the Family, a conservative Christian group centered in Colorado Springs. CO.

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2016-APR-27: Governor Bill Haslam (R) signed HB 1840 into law:

HB 1840 was passed by the House on APR-06 without a recorded vote. Its companion bill, SB 1556, was passed by the state Senate on APR-11 by a vote of 27 to 5. There are 28 Republicans and 5 Democrats in the Senate, so it is likely that the representatives voted mainly according to their political party affiliation. The bill was then sent to the Governor who was given the choice of signing it into law, or vetoing it, or allowing it to expire.

Richard Locker and Holly Meyer, writing for The Tennessean, said:

"Gov. Bill Haslam on Wednesday [APR-27] signed into law a controversial bill that says no licensed counselor or therapist must serve a client whose 'goals, outcomes or behaviors' conflict with the counselor’s 'sincerely held principles' -- a measure the American Counseling Association had denounced as a 'hate bill' [directed] against gay and transgender people.

Senate Bill 1556 also shields from civil lawsuits, criminal prosecution and sanctions by the state licensing board counselors who refuse to provide services --  provided they coordinate a referral of the client to another counselor who would serve them.

The bill’s provisions, which go into effect immediately, also will not apply in cases where the person seeking or undergoing counseling is 'in imminent danger of harming themselves or others'." 4

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Governor Haslam said:

"Although Senate Bill 1556 has received attention for its perceived focus, my job is to look at the actual substance of the legislation. After considerable thought and discussion with counselors both for and against the bill, I have decided to sign Senate Bill 1556.

There are two key provisions of this legislation that addressed concerns I had about clients not receiving care. First, the bill clearly states that it ‘shall not apply to a counselor or therapist when an individual seeking or undergoing counseling is in imminent danger of harming themselves or others.’ Secondly, the bill requires that any counselor or therapist who feels they cannot serve a client due to the counselor’s sincerely held principles must coordinate a referral of the client to another counselor or therapist who will provide the counseling or therapy.

The substance of this bill doesn’t address a group, issue or belief system. 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." 4

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Reactions to the Governor signing the bill into law:

A casual observer would almost think that commentators were referring to two different bills.

  • Art Terrazas, spokesperson for the American Counseling Association said that his group was:

    "... extremely disappointed that Gov. Haslam has ignored the lessons learned in North Carolina, Georgia and Mississippi and has elected to sign this dangerous bill into law. Plain and simple, this bill codifies discrimination.

    It not only disproportionately affects LGBTQ Tennesseans seeking counseling, but will also have unintended consequences that will reach Tennesseans in all walks of life -- whether it’s a veteran suffering from PTSD, a woman suffering from spousal abuse. or a business owner simply trying to attract out of state clients." 4

  • David Fowler is president of Family Action Council of Tennessee (FACT). It is a conservative Christian group that has supported the bill. He said:

    "Thankfully, the governor and our legislature, through this legislation, have said that there is still room in Tennessee for counselors who have a belief system that informs everything they do, including the kind of counsel they believe they can in good conscience provide to their clients." 4

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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. "American Counseling Association needs counseling over counseling bill," Family Action Council of Tennessee," 2016-APR-29, at:
  2. Rebekah Price, "Bill stages debate between counselors' religious freedoms and discriminatory policy," Elizabethton Star, 2016-APR-05, at:
  3. Joel Ebert et al., "Counseling group considers relocating Nashville conference over therapist bill," The Tennessean, 2016-APR-28, at:
  4. Richard Locker and Holly Meyer, "Haslam signs bill giving therapists protections," The Tennessean, 2016-APR-27, 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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