Christian counselors, therapists disagree with Tennessee bill protecting their religious liberty

The Tennessee Senate Chamber can be seen in this file photo. | Wikimedia Commons/Terrancee

Tennessee has passed a bill this week that, if it becomes law, would allow counselors and therapists to refuse to provide patients with mental health services if they deem that this would go against their religious principles. However, not everyone has accepted this bill warmly.

Tennesseee Senate Bill 1556/Tennessee House Bill 1840, nicknamed by some as "Hate Bill 1840," states that "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 ... "

According to The Gazette, those who support this bill say that it is needed in order to protect the religious liberty of counselors -- it says that, among other things, therapists cannot be criminally prosecuted or penalized for refusing a patient therapy based on the therapist's religious beliefs. The opposition, on the other hand, believes that this would make discrimination against LGBT legal.

It seems, though, that even those the bill is aiming to protect are not that supportive of it. The publication says that some pastoral counselors and some of those who belong to Christian counseling networks find it quite unnecessary and that it could cause discrimination against patients who are part of the LGBT community.

"I'm not supportive of the bill as it is, but I don't understand the need for it either," said Chris O'Rear, president of the Tennessee Association of Pastoral Therapists, expressing his personal opinion. "I don't know what to degree this is actually a problem or whether certain people just want it to be a problem."

Presbyterian minister Douglas Ronsheim, executive director of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors, said that "we would not support the bill in any way" because it violates his organization's code of ethics. Their code of ethics says that their members respect "various theologies, traditions, and values of our faith communities and committed to the dignity and worth of each individual."

Part of it reads: "We are committed ... to avoid discriminating against or refusing employment, educational opportunity or professional assistance to anyone on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, health status, age, disabilities or national origin; provided that nothing herein shall limit a member or center from utilizing religious requirements or exercising a religious preference in employment decisions."

The International Association of Christian Counselors, meanwhile, does not have a formal position with regard to the bill, but their code of ethics "does not eliminate anyone" either. Delores Horsman, director of the association, said it doesn't matter whether or not a therapist agrees with a patient, what's important is they offer whatever counsel they can. As an example, she cited a person with a fever who seeks the help of a doctor. The doctor should help, regardess of who the patient is.

"Everybody needs to be loved, and as Christian counselors we have to find ways to love people," she said.

Governor Bill Haslam of Tennessee has 10 days from Monday, April 11, to either sign the bill or veto it.