By Connie Davis Bushey
News Editor, Baptist and Reflector
BRENTWOOD — Two Tennessee Baptist counselors have voiced opinions about the new Tennessee law which allows licensed counselors to opt out of serving patients whose goals “conflict with the sincerely held principles of the counselor.” The American Counseling Association condemned the measure as discriminatory against the LGBT community.
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 effective immediately.
“There are two 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.”
Barney Self, pastoral counseling minister, Forest Hills Baptist Church, Nashville, and president of the Tennessee Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, said the law is “needless,” “will impede counseling,” and holds the potential of harming some counselees.
This law “protected us in ways we didn’t need to be protected” and is a sign of government overreach, he said.
In all of his 32 years of counseling, he has never counseled anyone whose religious beliefs perfectly matched his and doesn’t expect that, he said. In counseling, “I am up front with my religious beliefs but there is no room for imposing my beliefs on my counselee,” Self explained. “We are trained for this.” Counselors use “informed consent” to communicate their personal beliefs, he added.
The new law can harm counselees because it opens the door for a therapist to say a person’s beliefs are “not okay. That opens the door for hurt and harm and that’s not okay,” said Self, who also was LeaderCare counselor for LifeWay Christian Resources, Nashville, from 1999-2007.
The counselor and counselee have a “fiduciary relationship” which gives power to the therapist who can misuse it, he explained.
Counselees who have the door slammed in their face because a therapist doesn’t “deal with same-sex attraction,” will be able to be referred to another therapist easily in Nashville or another metropolitan area, but not so easily in a small town, Self added.
“Same-sex attraction is just one of many issues that might require referral to a more appropriate therapist,” he observed. The law puts therapists in the role of referring “in a negative and punitive fashion.” It also “cuts both ways” allowing therapists not to treat, for instance, “evangelicals because they view them in a negative light.”
The bill “opens the door for a more litigious attitude toward counselors than before,” he stated.
If a patient came to him to ask for help to have a better sexual relationship with their same-sex partner, he would just tell them he is not the best therapist for them and work toward helping them find a therapist while letting them know they are “valued as people,” explained Self. This was allowed before this law was passed.
He also refers patients for other reasons. For instance, he doesn’t treat people with drug and alcohol issues because of lack of training in that area, he explained.
Self said he is glad the bill protects a person who is suicidal from being referred.
Jason Gibson, director of the Babb Center, a counseling ministry extension of First Baptist Church, Hendersonville, told Baptist Press 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.”
— David Roach of Baptist Press contributed to this article.