Tennessee bill would allow counselors to deny service based on religion

The Tennessee House passed a bill on Wednesday allowing mental health counselors to refuse service to patients on religious grounds, the latest in a list of U.S. state measures that gay rights activists have criticized as discriminating against the LGBT community.

A vote by the state House of Representatives protects therapists and counselors from civil lawsuits and criminal action if they deny services to clients whose religious beliefs conflict with their own.

The bill passed by a 68-22 vote and sent to Gov. Bill Haslam for his signature. The state Senate passed the bill earlier this year.

Supporters of the bill say it protects the rights of counselors who object on religious grounds to the adopted code of ethics of the American Counseling Association. But opponents say it is an attempt to deny service to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people, a vulnerable population often in need of counseling services.

The House bill, which was sponsored by Republican Rep. Dan Howell, is one of many that are being challenged by human rights organizations claiming the legislation is anti-LGBT.

Howell was unavailable for comment Wednesday afternoon.

The Tennessee Equality Project, which supports gay rights, condemned the House passage of the bill even though it does not specifically refer to the LGBT issue. The group called on the governor to veto the legislation.

Haslam told Nashville Public Radio he has not decided whether to sign or veto the counseling legislation, but he was considering the impact it may have on the state and its citizens.

“They (state lawmakers) need to obviously always vote their conscience,” he told the radio station. “One of the things, though, that we should be mindful of is, is there a broader impact?”

On Tuesday, PayPal Holdings Inc canceled plans to open a global operations center in Charlotte, North Carolina and invest $3.6 million in the area after the state passed a law requiring people to use bathrooms or locker rooms in schools and other public facilities that match the gender on their birth certificate rather than their gender identity.

Tennessee is considering similar legislation related to school bathrooms, and civil rights groups are watching a Missouri measure seen as discriminatory. Last week, the governors of Georgia and Virginia vetoed “religious liberty” bills.

Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant on Tuesday signed a far-reaching law allowing people with religious objections to deny wedding services to same-sex couples and protecting other actions considered discriminatory by gay rights activists.

(Reporting by Justin Madden; Editing by David Gregorio)

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