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Tennessee Passes Controversial Mental Health Bill

The Republican-controlled Tennessee Legislature has passed a bill that would allow mental health professionals to reject patients based on principle. It is unclear whether Republican Gov. Bill Haslam will pass or veto the legislation, but it is opposed by the American Counseling Association, the ACLU and the LGBT community.

On April 11, the Tennessee Senate passed an amendment to the bill by 25 to 6 votes, Reuters reports.

The amendment transformed the language of the legislation to allow mental health professionals to refer patients based on “sincerely held principles” rather than “sincerely held religious beliefs,” according to the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

The bill has outraged the state's LGBT community, who view its purpose as allowing therapists to refuse them counseling.

Republican State Sen. Jack Johnson, who sponsored the bill, deemed it a measure to protect religious liberty.

The legislation was a direct response to the ACA's revised code of ethics released in 2014 which stipulated that mental health professionals were in violation if they allowed their personal beliefs to impact their treatment of a client.

“No human authority can interfere with rights of conscience,” Republican State Sen. Mike Bell said.

Democratic State Sen. Jeff Yarbro warned that the language of the legislation was so vague that it could lead to counselors rejecting patients based on their race, creed or anything else they found objectionable.

“As far as I know, ‘sincerely held principal’ is an unheard-of concept, at least as a legal matter,” Yarbro, an attorney, said. “There’s no litigation on what those ‘principles’ are.”

Johnson said that if Yarbro disapproved of the legislation, then he should blame the ACA.

The ACLU of Tennessee issued a statement warning that the bill could harm state residents if signed into law, according to New York Magazine.

“For people seeking counseling because they are faced with a critical dilemma in their lives and need objective guidance, allowing mental-health professionals to discriminate could cause grave damage,” the organization wrote.

"Many who need care already face significant barriers, including trauma, marginalization, and a historic distrust of mental-health providers. For some — like a woman who wants to escape her abusive spouse or a gay teen being bullied, for example — this bill could affect their very survival."

The legislation would request that counselors who object to treating a particular patient refer that person to another mental health professional. A counselor would not be allowed to turn away a patient if that person were an imminent danger to themselves or others.

Upon receiving the bill, Haslam will have 10 days, excluding Sundays, to either pass it into law or veto it. The governor stated previously that he will need to weigh the legislation's impact on Tennessee residents before coming to a decision.

Sources: New York Magazine, Reuters, Chattanooga Times Free Press / Photo Credit: CJF20/Flickr

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