Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam on Wednesday signed a bill into law that allows therapists and counselors with “sincerely held principles” to reject gay, lesbian, transgender and other clients.
“Although Senate Bill 1556 has received attention for its perceived focus, my job is to look at the actual substance of the legislation,” said Haslam, a Republican in his second term.
In a written statement to the media, he said two of his concerns had been addressed by this most recent version of the bill, which passed the state Senate on April 6. The first requires therapists and counselors to treat people who are an imminent danger to themselves or others. The second mandates the mental health professional arrange a referral to another counselor or therapist.
“The substance of this bill doesn’t address a group, issue or belief system,” the governor said. “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.”
Hedy Weinberg, the executive director of the ACLU in Tennessee, expressed her disappointment, calling the law troubling.
“This measure is rooted in the dangerous misconception that religion can be used as a free pass to discriminate,” Weinberg said. “Allowing counselors to treat some potential clients differently from others based on their personal beliefs defies professional standards and could cause significant harm to vulnerable people.”
Earlier this month, the Family Action Council of Tennessee touted its support for the bill, saying it was important to protect the religious beliefs and moral convictions of counselors and therapists.
The final version of the bill that became law no longer includes any references to religious beliefs. The language was changed by the Tennessee House and Senate after the April 6 vote.
The law went into effect with the governor’s signature.
The debate over “religious freedom” laws is not unique to Tennessee. There have been some 100 bills proposed in legislatures across the United States in 2016 that invoke religion as justification to refuse services to gay people, according to Eunice Rho of the American Civil Liberties Union.