A bill many say discriminates against the gay and lesbian community passed the Tennessee Senate Thursday with a 22-4 vote. The next step is the State House vote.
Senate Bill 514 says psychology, counseling and social work students in public colleges and universities cannot be punished for refusing to counsel or serve a client if the students have differing religious beliefs.
"It's essentially endorsing discrimination against clients that need help," says Jonathan Cole with the Shelby County Committee with the Tennessee Equality Project (TEP).
State Sen. Joey Hensley (R-Howenwald), one of the bill's sponsors, says it's just like any other bill they pass and "people make a big deal about it and it's probably going to affect very few people."
Cole says the TEP is concerned this legislation will open the door to other discriminations in the field.
"The law is written so broadly that if you have religious objections to working with a client because they're divorced, because your religion says your race is superior to another," says Cole. "Regardless of sexual orientation there are a lot of different factors that the Bible and other holy scriptures have been used to discriminate against people."
"That community tends to think every bill is directed at them," Sen. Hensley added. "A client is really being disserviced if their counselor has a religious belief against what they're doing and trying to get help with."
Whether or not the legislation violates the American Psychology Association (APA) code of ethics differs from each side of the debate. Those in opposition say it does violate the code of ethics and will cause Tennessee colleges to lose their accreditation; legislators in support say it will not affect accreditation.
"In such cases, training programs should work with trainees to help them develop the skills to work with diverse populations," said Rhea Farberman, Executive Director with APA. "Training programs should also respect the right of individual trainees to maintain their personal belief systems."
Farberman adds that there should be a mission to train all students to serve a diverse population, and within that framework programs may occasionally reassign a client to a different therapist "if the trainee is not prepared to work with that client."
State Rep. John DeBerry (D-Memphis) says he is meeting with educators and stakeholders to investigate the bill further and possibly find another format for it.
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