NASHVILLE - The American Counseling Association announced Tuesday that it is canceling plans to hold a conference in Nashville next year to protest a Tennessee law letting therapists decline to see patients based on religious values and personal principles.
The ACA, which has condemned Tennessee's new law as a "hate bill" that discriminates against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, has called the legislation an unprecedented attack on its profession. The organization says no other state has passed such a law and it has vowed to work to get it repealed.
The ACA had already booked its expo in the Music City toward the end of March, but decided to cancel after careful consideration, and hearing from the organization's members, said Richard Yep, its CEO. By pulling out, the organization, which has vowed to work to repeal the new law, is hoping to keep similar measures from passing around the country.
"Our message to other states is don't introduce bills that are essentially legalizing discrimination," Yep said. "It is discriminating against those who are least able to fight back."
The conference, Yep said, would have brought between 3,500 and 4,000 people to the city.
Nashville Mayor Megan Barry and tourist officials in the Music City have been against the legislation and have feared the city could face backlash because of a law that it did not create or support.
This is the second group to have canceled a convention in Nashville as a result of the law, Bonna Johnson, a spokeswoman for the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp., said in an email. She declined to name the other organization. The Convention and Visitors Corp. estimates that the ACA convention would have generated $2.5 million in direct visitor spending and $444,609 in total tax revenue for the state and city.
"We are obviously disappointed, but we are not surprised," Butch Spyridon, president and CEO of the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp. said in a release. "This cancellation is the second one and is likely just the tip of the iceberg when you consider all the other groups that won't consider us now. It is regrettable that all the hard work and investment to make Nashville a top destination has been unnecessarily undone by politics."
Yep said he appreciated the city's efforts to fight the law and raised the possibility that the organization would someday come to Nashville once the measure is repealed.
Sen. Jack Johnson, a Republican from Franklin who sponsored the bill, did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment.
He has previously said that law has been misunderstood and mischaracterized as something that allows counselors to turn patients away. The law says counselors can only decline to treat people, provided they refer them to someone else. And counselors are never allowed to decline to treat someone if they are an immediate danger to themselves or others.
Supporters of the law have said that it keeps the government from forcing people to counsel others to act in ways that conflict with a therapist's moral beliefs. The law, backers say, isn't just about LGBT patients. For instance, supporters of the measure say a religious counselor should not be forced to affirm the value of someone with a terminal illness who wants to die by suicide.
There is some disagreement about whether the ACA's previous code of ethics, before it was updated in 2014, allowed counselors to refer patients to other therapists when there was a clash over values. The organization disputes that interpretation. Religious counselors say there were able to make the referrals and it worked just fine in the past.
Gov. Bill Haslam signed the legislation that made it law. A spokeswoman for Haslam said the law puts counselors in line with other positions.
"The governor believes that, at the end of the day, counselors should be like any other professionals, such as doctors or lawyers, and have the availability to decide whether they can appropriately serve a client," Jennifer Donnals said in an email. "This law provides that a therapist cannot turn away someone in a life-threatening situation and has to refer the client to another appropriate therapist, providing protection for the client as well as respecting the therapist as a professional.