Last week the Tennessee legislature passed House Bill 1840/Senate Bill 1556. The bill, which has come to be known as Hate Bill 1840, will head to the governor’s desk any day now. As introduced, HB 1840 declared that no counselors “shall be required to counsel or serve a client as to goals, outcomes, or behaviors that conflict with a sincerely held religious belief.” As amended, the bill that will go to the governor declares no counselor is required to serve a client who conflicts with a “sincerely held belief.”
According to the Family Action Council of Tennessee, HB 1840 was introduced to “protect the right of conscience of a counselor”, and to “safeguard … religious beliefs … and moral convictions.” The group states that the bill responds to the American Counseling Association, which the Family Action Council claims amended its ethics code to “target” Christian counselors. But really, it is this bill that targets LGBT clients, whose identity they believe directly counters Christian counselors’ values and religious beliefs. Should anyone truly believe our religious or moral integrity were under threat, we would likely fight back, tooth and nail.
The underlying fear appears to be that without protection, Tennessee’s Christian therapists would be “forced” to counsel — and by proxy, affirm — LGBT-identified people. Supporters of HB 1840 likely have nightmares of a self-righteous LGBT person knocking on an innocent, unsuspecting therapist’s door — ACLU lawyers in tow — waiting for the therapist to show reluctance or hesitancy so they can slap them with a lawsuit. Gotcha!
The truth is, before the bill was introduced, there had been no complaints brought to the Tennessee Counseling Association, the Licensing Board, or any other entity about such concerns. While it is important to acknowledge and respect Christian counselors’ anticipatory anxiety, it is for the most part unrealistic. In fact, Christian counselors’ fears of moral attack are unfounded and reflect a lack of understanding about the clients they are hoping to defend themselves against.
The therapist’s office is not like a florist or bakery, recent targets of lawsuits involving LGBT rights. Therapy is not a product — it is a relationship. Given the long history of discrimination faced by LGBT people, it’s likely that the types of counselors “protected” by HB 1840 are not sought out by many LGBT patients. In fact, research has shown that many older LGBT people avoid psychological professionals because of our history of maltreatment toward them. While chances are slim that many LGBT clients will enlist the services of a counselor who holds the “strongly held religious beliefs” protected in HB 1840, the law becomes dangerous for those LGBT patients in rural areas who may lack the means or opportunity to travel to a counselor who shares their belief system and must rely on local counselors in their time of need.
While those behind the bill are fixated on the “LGBT bogeyman” preying on their religious rights, HB 1840 is dangerous solution to a problem that — just like the bogeyman — does not exist. As counselors, we need to step up and make sure the facts are out there. Yes, HB 1840 is an unnecessary government intrusion, but in the rare instances where a desperate patient needs care, it is unnecessary legislation that may be the difference between life and death.
LETICIA FLORES is a licensed psychologist based in Knoxville, Tenn.