American Counseling Association Protests Tennessee Therapist Law

Tennessee welcome sign on roadThe American Counseling Association (ACA) announced Tuesday it is canceling its 2017 annual conference in Tennessee. The cancellation is in protest of a newly enacted law that would allow counselors to refuse to treat people based on “sincerely held principles.” Opponents of the legislation say it is an anti-LGBT law masquerading as protection for religious freedom.

“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,” Richard Yep, CEO of the ACA, said in a press release.

Yep said relocating the annual conference to a different location would allow ACA to stand up to what the organization believes is a discriminatory law.

Understanding Tennessee’s Senate Bill 1556/House Bill 1840

The bill, which is widely viewed as part of the backlash against LGBT populations, originally stated that counselors could refuse to treat people whose goals or behaviors conflict with “sincerely held religious beliefs.” An amendment to the bill changed the wording to “sincerely held principles,” allowing for a broader interpretation of when such treatment refusal is acceptable. Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam signed the bill into law on April 27, 2016.

Because of the bill’s broad wording, it would allow therapists to decline treatment to people on the basis of a broad variety of personal and idiosyncratic principles. For example, a therapist might refuse treatment to a war veteran with posttraumatic stress based on the therapist’s opposition to military policy, according to Art Terrazas, director of government affairs for the ACA.

How the Law Affects the Mental Health Profession

Therapists have never been forced to treat everyone who seeks assistance. Mental health professionals routinely refer people to other professionals when they are too busy, feel unable to help the person, or are concerned about how their work with someone might affect their own lives. As a result, opponents say Tennessee’s law does not address a safety need or ensure professional competence. Instead, it may put vulnerable populations on notice that they may be subject to discrimination from mental health professionals.

A therapist could abandon a client of many years based solely on the person’s sexual orientation. The ACA and other organizations say this could prevent people from seeking treatment. It may also inhibit someone’s willingness to disclose their sexual orientation to their therapist. In rural areas where there are few mental health professionals, a therapist’s decision to decline to treat someone could render treatment inaccessible.

Therapists routinely treat people whose behavior conflicts with their own values. Many people seek therapy because they may be troubled by their behaviors, such as gambling, infidelity, or shoplifting, among others. Opening up the possibility for therapists to decline treatment based on behavior they dislike could undermine access to therapy well beyond LGBT populations.

Tennessee is currently the only state that allows mental health professionals to deny treatment based on belief systems.


  1. Almasy, S. (2016, April 27). Tennessee governor signs ‘therapist bill’ into law. Retrieved from
  2. Burke, S. (2016, May 11). Counseling group cancels conference to target Tennessee law. Retrieved from
  3. Codes of ethics on termination in psychotherapy and counseling. (n.d.). Retrieved from
  4. Percelay, R. (2016, April 12). What the media need to know about Tennessee’s new anti-LGBT law. Retrieved from
  5. The American Counseling Association will not hold its annual conference & expo in Tennessee. (2016, May 10). Retrieved from

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  • lanna


    May 11th, 2016 at 3:51 PM

    Well good for the ACA! The more professional organizations who stand up for this kind of behavior the better off we will all be! Time to let the bigots out there know that enough is enough, and this is not going to be tolerated anymore.

  • Cris


    May 12th, 2016 at 10:30 AM

    Have they not even considered that the more people who are turned away means that there will be an even larger mental health crisis in this country than what we already have? I am sure that if people start to think that this person does not agree with my life, then they will begin to feel like they are wrong and that they have to change who they are to conform.
    This is so not what counseling should be all about. It is supposed to be a way to come to terms with who you are and help you practice self love, not even more self hatred than what many of us are already feeling.

  • dottie


    May 13th, 2016 at 10:29 AM

    But this should be alright as long as you are willing to refer them to someone whom you know would be better equipped to handle their specifics right?

  • Toby


    May 14th, 2016 at 10:14 AM

    Great start in the right direction

  • addison


    May 16th, 2016 at 11:26 AM

    I am not saying that I lean one way or the other, but if I am a counselor surely I know my own personal limitations and who I feel like I can work well with and who may need help from someone else. Would I not even be able to make those kinds of decisions if I truly believed that this was what was in the best interest of this prospective patient?

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