In Tennessee and a number of states across the country, state legislatures have considered discriminatory bills under the guise of “religious freedom.” This past month, the Tennessee General Assembly voted on House Bill 1840, the first of these bills specifically targeting the American Counseling Association and attempting to undermine the counseling profession through legislation that would permit counselors to deny essential services to clients based on the provider’s “strongly held beliefs.”
When Georgia, North Carolina and Mississippi, among other states, considered similar bills, it negatively affected their reputations and damaged or endangered their state businesses, tourism and convention industries. More worrisome than the economic impact of these bills, however, is their societal impact. These so-called “religious freedom” bills set a dangerous precedent and send a harmful message that fairness and equality are secondary to personal opinion.
The Tennessee legislation would brazenly violate the fundamental tenets of the counseling profession. Tennessee is among 13 states that already include the ACA Code of Ethics in their state counselor licensure laws. The ACA Code of Ethics states that professional counselors may not deny services to a client regardless of that person’s “age, culture, disability, ethnicity, race, religion/spirituality, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, marital/partnership status, language preference, socioeconomic status, immigration status or any basis proscribed by law.” Nearly 60,000 counselors abide by this standard — which Tennessee’s proposed legislation seeks to fundamentally undercut.
And for what reason? This is a supposed “solution” in search of a problem that does not exist. If lawmakers backing this bill solicited the vast majority of counselors’ opinions, they would understand that the counseling profession already has in place ethical and responsible processes and procedures to deal with situations in which counselors must refer prospective or existing clients.
Yet those most damaged by Tennessee moving forward with this legislation would not be professional counselors but rather those in the darkest chapters of their lives. Each and every counselor can recite numerous examples of individuals for whom accessible and professional counseling services are and were a lifeline. Allowing any counselor — or any other health care provider — to deny services based on personal belief could harm access to essential and professional care for many of the most vulnerable members of the community.
Religion cannot and should not be politicized or manipulated to allow for discrimination. These “religious freedom” bills constitute unnecessary government overreach and result in demonstrable harm to citizens across the nation. The American Counseling Association urges our members and allies to take action in their states to oppose similar discrimination bills.