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Tenn. Christian counselors get ‘added protection’

NASHVILLE (BP) — A Tennessee law allowing licensed counselors to opt out of serving patients whose goals “conflict with the sincerely held principles of the counselor” has drawn praise from two Southern Baptist mental health care professionals despite the American Counseling Association’s condemnation of the measure as discriminatory against homosexuals.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam signed Senate Bill 1556 into law April 27, noting it does not leave anyone without mental health care. The law takes effect immediately.

“There are two key provisions of this legislation that addressed concerns I had about clients not receiving care,” Haslam, a Republican, said according to The Tennessean. “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,” Haslam said. “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.”

Chuck Hannaford, a Southern Baptist clinical psychologist in Germantown, Tenn., told Baptist Press the law is a form of “consumer protection” for counseling patients.

Mental health care in Tennessee, Hannaford said, is legally regulated in part by the American Counseling Association’s code of ethics, which requires counselors to operate from a “value-neutral” perspective, seeing all prospective clients at least once regardless of their problems or value systems.

Under the code, a counselor can refer a patient outside his or her field of expertise to another counselor, but the referral cannot be based solely on values or religious beliefs — a requirement added to the code in 2014. The Tennessee law now stipulates that violating that portion of the code does not constitute a basis for government action against a counselor.

Such requirements decrease the quality of mental health care in Tennessee and helped inspire the new law, said Hannaford, president of Heartlife Professional Soul Care.

“If the ACA says that I have to be value-neutral and I have to see anybody that comes through the door in private practice,” he said, “then the quality of service across the board in the state of Tennessee would be diminished tremendously.”

Hannaford added, “Why would you force me, as a clinician, to deal with somebody when it’s against my value system? There’s a potential for me to do harm to that person because I’m supposed to be self-aware as a clinician. I’m supposed to understand my limits.”

Art Terrazas, an ACA spokesman, told BP the Tennessee bill “originally was put in place and proposed by a group that did not like … the LGBT group.” The measure, he said, could undermine the goal of helping people become mentally healthy.

The law’s allowance for refusing service based on any “sincerely held principles,” Terrazas said, “gives the counselor such wide latitude. If the counselor’s personal belief is that African American people shouldn’t seek counseling … [or] if you’re a woman, they can turn you away. If you’re left-handed. Even if you’re a Christian, you could be turned away.

“There’s a huge possible negative cascading effect that could occur because of this,” Terrazas said.

Jason Gibson, director of the Babb Center, a counseling ministry extension of First Baptist Church in Hendersonville, Tenn., told BP that fears that Christian counselors will discriminate against anyone are misplaced.

“Christ calls us to meet everyone right where they are,” Gibson said. “The Babb Center sees people from all walks of life and is committed to meeting them where they are while encouraging them to recognize the truth in God’s Word. A Christ mandate is against all those discriminatory things people are worried about.”

The Tennessee law “should have been unnecessary,” Gibson said, but is “an added legal protection” to ensure all counselors will be permitted to operate according to their value systems.

The law “does not change how we’ve been operating or how we will operate,” Gibson said of the Babb Center. “It’s nice to have some added protection, but we feel called to meet people right where they are to give them hope and love in the midst of what’s going on in their lives.”