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Counseling Group Won't Meet in Tennessee Because of Anti-LGBT Law

Richard Yep
American Counseling Association CEO Richard Yep

The American Counseling Association will move its 2017 conference because of a new law letting therapists turn away LGBT clients and others based on religious objections.

The American Counseling Association has canceled plans to hold its annual conference in Nashville next year in protest of a recently adopted Tennessee law allowing licensed therapists to turn away LGBT clients and others who pose a conflict with the therapist's religious beliefs.

"If the new law is allowed to stand, we cannot in good conscience bring business to Tennessee," said the group's chief executive officer, Richard Yep, in an online video (watch below) announcing the decision today. "It is an affront to our profession, and we must stand firm to prevent other states from enacting a law like HB 1840. Therefore, our annual meeting will be rescheduled for another venue outside of Tennessee."

Tennessee state representatives approved House Bill 1840 in early April, and senators had passed their chamber's counterpart, Senate Bill 1556, in February. Gov. Bill Haslam signed the legislation into law in late April.

The measure stipulates 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; provided, that the counselor or therapist coordinates a referral of the client to another counselor or therapist who will provide the counseling or therapy." The therapist's refusal to treat the client will not be cause for civil suits or criminal prosecution, according to the law.

The ACA and other opponents of the legislation have said it sets up obstacles to clients in sparsely populated areas, as they have few therapists to choose from. "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," Knoxville therapist Letitia Flores wrote in an Advocate commentary in April. She noted that professional associations and licensing authorities had received no complaints about any counselor being forced to serve a client over religious objections.

Jennifer Donnals, a spokeswoman for Haslam, reacted to the cancellation by saying, "They had said they were considering that, and they won't experience all that Tennessee has to offer," reports Nashville newspaper The Tennessean.

Nashville Mayor Megan Barry, who had opposed the legislation, told the paper, "The decision by the American Counseling Association was an unfortunate consequence of the state's decision to enact HB 1840 into law. While we are disappointed in the lost revenue opportunity for local businesses as a result of the ACA canceling their convention, we remain dedicated to promoting Nashville to other businesses, conventions, and tourists by showing that we are an inclusive, warm and welcoming city for all."

The ACA is seeking proposals from other cities that wish to host the convention, Yep said in a press release. "No matter where we hold our 2017 conference, ACA will continue to advocate on behalf of counselors and the diverse populations that they serve," he said.

In another reaction to the Tennessee law, Mayor Jim Kenney of Philadelphia Monday issued an order banning nonessential city-funded travel to the state, Chattanooga's Times Free Press reports. He had previously banned such travel to North Carolina and Mississippi over their anti-LGBT laws, plus to the city of Oxford, Ala., which eventually repealed a transphobic ordinance it had enacted.

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