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LGBT Activists Criticize Tennessee Law Allowing Therapists To Refuse Patients


Throughout the South, state lawmakers have considered measures that critics say are aimed at the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. In Tennessee, Gov. Bill Haslam has signed a law that lets therapists turn away patients on moral grounds.

Advocates for LGBT people say that would make it harder for them to get counseling. Many therapists say the law isn't necessary. Chas Sisk of member station WPLN in Nashville reports.

CHAS SISK, BYLINE: For therapist Justin Briggs, there is one main rule to follow, the golden rule. Do onto others as you have them do unto you.

JUSTIN BRIGGS: So little of what we do is about getting clients to agree. And we are way more often teaching people how to be in loving, caring meaningful relationships with people who are different than them. And that's really what tolerance is all about.

SISK: Tolerance is what Briggs teaches as director of the marriage and family therapy program at Lipscomb University, an evangelical school in Nashville. He's one of many therapists, including devout Christians opposed to new Tennessee law that lets counselors turn away clients who go against their sincerely held principles.

BRIGGS: I would say that I'm therapist who is a Christian. Just like I would hope a medical doctor would say, I'm a medical doctor who's a Christian. There's no such thing as a Christian surgery, for example. And I would say there's no such thing as Christian therapy.

SISK: Yet therapists like Briggs are exactly who Tennessee lawmakers seem to have in mind when they approved the counseling measure. Before, therapists in Tennessee had to treat anyone even people they disagreed with. Counselors who refused could lose their licenses. Now many in Tennessee's LGBT community fear they'll be rejected, especially in rural parts of the state where faith-based counselors are the norm.

CHRIS SANDERS: And then where do you go? You may have to go 35, 50 miles away and that might not be practical for you.

SISK: Chris Sanders is the director of the Tennessee Equality Project. He says the new counseling law is on a long list of ideas that target the state's LGBT community. Most have been defeated, including a high-profile measure that would have required transgender students to use the bathroom of their birth sex. By comparison, the counseling bill drew far less attention.

SANDERS: I think our opposition was very clever in narrowly tailoring this bill on one profession to see if they could get something passed, and they did.

SISK: Sanders predicts supporters will next try to shield social workers and other professions. One of the main lobbyists in favor of the counseling bill was David Fowler. He leads the state affiliate of Focus on the Family, a Christian organization. He says faith-based professionals need better protections.

DAVID FOWLER: We had the counselors come to us who said we will be the people who will be targeted just like the florists and the bakers. Somebody will come to us, we will ask to refer them, and they'll say no. We don't want to be referred. We don't - like, we don't want a cake from one of the other 500 bakers in Seattle. We want it from you and you only.

SISK: Some warned of a backlash if the counseling bill passed. They point to North Carolina, where a broad measure opposed by LGBT groups has led businesses to pull out and entertainers to cancel dates. Since Tennessee's governor signed the bill earlier this week, the American Counseling Association announced it might move its next annual gathering from Nashville. The association wrote the nondiscrimination rule that Tennessee just threw out. And today, Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman said she won't attend a different conference this summer.

KIM WYMAN: Access to a health care and certainly mental health care counseling when vulnerable people need it most is a high priority for the people I represent. And we have a real history and culture of inclusiveness.

SISK: Tourism officials worry others will follow. State lawmakers call threats of boycotts and economic sanctions little more than blackmail. Showing in Tennessee standing up for religious values surpasses all else even when the people whose values are being stood up for don't think it's necessary. For NPR News, I'm Chas Sisk in Nashville. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Chas joined WPLN in 2015 after eight years with The Tennessean, including more than five years as the newspaper's statehouse reporter.Chas has also covered communities, politics and business in Massachusetts and Washington, D.C. Chas grew up in South Carolina and attended Columbia University in New York, where he studied economics and journalism. Outside of work, he's a dedicated distance runner, having completed a dozen marathons

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