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Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam

NASHVILLE — Tennessee is beginning to experience a backlash over its controversial new law allowing mental health counselors and therapists to turn away LGBT clients.

The new Tennessee law allows mental health professionals with "sincerely held" religious or philosophical objections to reject lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender clients whose goals are at odds with counselors.

Gov. Bill Haslam on April 27 signed the bill passed by fellow Republicans in the Tennessee General Assembly.

On Tuesday, the American Counseling Association, which fought the legislation and dubbed it "Hate Bill 1840," announced on its website the group has canceled its planned 2017 national convention in Nashville.

ACA officials, who had previously said they were considering the action, said they are now actively looking for another convention site.

"This was not an easy decision to make," said Richard Yep, CEO of ACA, in a posting on the group's website. "After thoughtful discussion, the ACA Governing Council made the difficult — and courageous — decision on behalf of our membership."

Yep charged that "of all the state legislation I have seen passed in my 30 years with ACA, the new Tennessee law based on Senate Bill 1556/House Bill 1840 is by far the worst. This law directly targets the counseling profession, would deny services to those most in need, and constitutes a dilemma for ACA members because it allows for violation of ACA's Code of Ethics."

Asked about the ACA's cancellation, Haslam Press Secretary Jennifer Donnals sought to downplay the development, noting "they had said they were considering that, and they won't experience all that Tennessee has to offer."

Earlier in the day, Donnals offered up the same response when asked by the Times Free Press about Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney's announcement on Monday.

Kenney said he was adding Tennessee to a list, which already included North Carolina and Mississippi, as places city workers can't travel to on local taxpayers' dime unless the travel is deemed "essential to public health and safety."

North Carolina and Mississippi this year passed "religious freedom" laws that LGBT advocates say target them.

In addition to Tennessee, the Philadelphia mayor added Oxford, Ala., where city officials recently passed an ordinance restricting public bathroom use according to sex at birth. Violators are subject to $500 fines and up to six months in jail.

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In a statement, Kenney called the ban "a response to the enactment of legislation that infringes the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals in these jurisdictions."

Nellie Fitzpatrick, Kenney's director of LGBT Affairs, said Tuesday the city "will continue to stand up with and for LGBT people by using everything within our jurisdictional power to send the message that hate and discrimination against people for who they are or who they love is intolerable.

"If other jurisdictions keep passing discriminatory laws, we will keep eliminating the possibility of our dollars going into their economies," she added.

The city had no figures on officials' travel to Tennessee.

Tennessee House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, took swift aim at the city of Philadelphia, retorting, "I'd say that Philadelphia's mayor probably doesn't need to be wasting taxpayer-funded junkets anywhere, much less Tennessee.

"They need to worry about paying the pensions they promised to city employees," said McCormick, who added that Philadelphia's pension is underfunded by some $5.7 billion.

Meanwhile, New York Assemblyman Daniel O'Donnell, D-Manhattan, last week called on fellow Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo to extend the governor's existing publicly funded travel ban for North Carolina and Mississippi to Tennessee.

"I urge [Gov. Cuomo] to instate a travel ban to Tennessee," O'Donnell said, according to The Legislative Gazette, which covers New York state government. "I do not have to extrapolate on how this is directly discriminatory to individuals that identify as LGBT or to those that hold any beliefs that are different from the beliefs of their medical provider."

O'Donnell, who was elected in 2002 as New York's first openly gay state lawmaker, is pushing for the third time legislation that would ban state-funded travel to places that discriminate. He says his bill would allow Cuomo to act on a case-by-case basis without having to issue individual executive orders.

An O'Donnell spokeswoman said Cuomo's office has yet to respond to the lawmaker. The governor's press office did not respond to a Times Free Press request Tuesday on whether Cuomo might consider taking action against Tennessee.

All the actions come on the heels of last month's announcement by Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman, a Republican, who said the new Tennessee law was partially responsible for her decision not to attend this summer's conference of the nation's 50 secretaries of state in Nashville.

Chris Sanders, executive director of the LGBT advocacy group The Tennessee Equality Project, said the state "is a wonderful place and we encourage those visiting to speak out against the new counseling discrimination law.

"We can't really blame companies and elected officials from other parts of the country for thinking twice," Sanders said. "But those who come and those who choose to stay away can use their voices to oppose this discriminatory law."

When Haslam signed the legislation he said he thought it struck an appropriate balance with requirements that professionals still treat people considered an imminent danger to themselves or others.

Haslam noted a second provision mandates that mental health professionals arrange a referral to another counselor or therapist if they elect not to work with a patient.

During this year's recently ended legislative session, Haslam publicly raised concerns about another controversial bill that would have restricted transgender K-12 and public college students to bathrooms based on their sex at birth. The House sponsor eventually shelved the bill.

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com, 615-255-0550 or follow via twitter at AndySher1.

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