Bill that would allow therapists to reject gay clients passes Tennessee House

Hundreds of Christian conservatives rallied before Tennessee's state Capitol today as ministers and elected officials urged them to defend religious freedom from a multi-faceted attack and called for a "revival" of faith in upcoming elections.

NASHVILLE - The Tennessee House today approved a bill that would allow counselors and therapists with sincerely held personal beliefs to reject gay clients whose goals are at odds with their views and refer them on to other professionals.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Dan Howell, R-Georgetown, passed 68-22 following a rollicking debate that laid bare both philosophical differences and tensions between majority Republicans and Democrats who are a minority.

An amendment sends the bill back to the Senate, which previously passed the measure.

Critics charged the bill would allow counselors and therapists to discriminate against vulnerable people like LGBT teens who come seeking help. But Howell and others say it protects constitutional rights of the professionals while providing adequate safeguards to ensure proper referrals.

The bill is opposed by the American Counseling Association and Howell lashed out at the professional organization's 2014 change to ethical standards that can affect licensure.

Howell said guarantees of free speech and religious liberty can be threatened by the changes.

The ACA, based in Alexandria, Va., "overstepped their authority and elevated their code above the First amendment and that's why we're here today," Howell said.

But Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville, who unsuccessfully pushed a number of amendments seeking to change aspects of the bill, said the profession regulates itself. Proponents say the bill came about after the ACA made changes in 2014 following a ruling by the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in a Michigan case involving a student who asked to be allow to refer a gay client to someone else.

Charging "one special interest group" from outside Tennessee is now pushing efforts in various states to overturn the ACA changes, Clemmons questioned "who are they to dictate the access to health care that the people of Tennessee receive. Who are they to make Tennessee an outlier. We cannot allow one special interest group to come into a state and . tamper with the lives of people who are needing help and seeking help."

As Clemmons began pushing a series of amendments to change aspects of the bill, House Republicans moved to limit debate on them and refused to allow Clemmons to let a Democratic colleague handle several of them.

Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, sought recognition and began reading from a recent column by conservative columnist Peggy Noonan, saying her remarks about "modern leftism" applies "to what we're listening to here."

Quoting her, McCormick said "there's something increasingly unappeasable on the left progressives accept no limits." Continuing reading the column, McCormick said it's not enough to win on issues like same-sex marriage. If you disapprove "you'll be ruined," McCormick said.

Retorted Clemmons: "If being on the left means standing up for people who need help and the working men and women who need help than I'm happy to be on the left. The things in this bill have gone so far to the right."

He later referenced other bills that Republicans in various states have sponsored including "religious freedom restoration acts" dealing with reactions to last year's U.S. Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage.

One such bill passing the Georgia Legislature was later vetoed by Republican Gov. Nathan Deal after major businesses objected and threatened to pull projects out of the state.