Mainstream media take aim at Tennessee law protecting counselors

Tennessee passed a law this week that allows counselors to refer out a patient based on a counselor's personal beliefs, and news media, of course, are all over it.

The law itself sounds pretty simple: "No counselor or therapist providing counseling or therapy services shall be required to counsel or serve a client as to goals, outcomes, or behaviors that conflict with the sincerely held principles of the counselor or therapist; provided, that the counselor or therapist coordinates a referral of the client to another counselor or therapist who will provide the counseling or therapy."

But numerous accounts, like one by Reuters, have been raising alarms: "Tennessee's Republican governor on Wednesday signed a law allowing mental health counselors to refuse service to patients on 'sincerely held principles,' the latest in a string of U.S. state measures criticized as discriminatory against the gay community."

Reuters goes on to quote Gov. Bill Haslam's denial:  "The substance of this bill doesn't address a group, issue or belief system." He compares it to other professionals like doctors and lawyers who may refer a client to common else in case of a conflict of principles. But by then, Reuters has already planted its sarcasm quotes and framed the law as yet another attack on gays.

Lending force to the framing is the American Civil Liberties Union, which says the law assumes "that religion can be used as a free pass to discriminate" -- although religious language has been stricken from the law.

Also instructive are two stories by NewsChannel 5 in Nashville. The breaking story quotes Haslam extensively. Three hours later, the follow-up majors on gay objections.

The Washington Post attempts a broader story but fails, starting with the lede: "Tennessee’s Republican governor said Wednesday that he signed a bill into law that allows mental health counselors to refuse to treat patients based on the therapist’s religious or personal beliefs." As you know, the law doesn't mention religious beliefs, although a previous version did.

The Post then throws in an unattributed "sources say" paragraph:

The American Counseling Association called the legislation an "unprecedented attack" on the counseling profession and said Tennessee was the only state to ever pass such a law. Opponents say the legislation is part of a wave of bills around the nation that legalizes discrimination against gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people.

WaPo does name a spokesman for the American Counseling Association, Art Terrazas, who says how "profoundly disappointed" he is and how the law will harm clients. But the 500-word article has some yawning gaps.

First, it puts all the focus on the governor, as if there's no legislature. Second, it quotes Haslam saying he consulted experts on both sides; but it doesn't say who they are, let alone ask any of them.

Third, the Post has Haslam saying the law was a response to a 2014 change in the ACA code of ethics, which "took away therapists’ ability to make decisions based on their values." How? Doesn't say.

One of the better stories appeared in the Nashville Tennessean. The state's newspaper of record provides an examination from several perspectives.

The Tennesseean gives the governor ample space to speak for himself:

"There are two key provisions of this legislation that addressed concerns I had about clients not receiving care. First, the bill clearly states that it ‘shall not apply to a counselor or therapist when an individual seeking or undergoing counseling is in imminent danger of harming themselves or others.’ Secondly, the bill requires that any counselor or therapist who feels they cannot serve a client due to the counselor’s sincerely held principles must coordinate a referral of the client to another counselor or therapist who will provide the counseling or therapy," he said.
"The substance of this bill doesn’t address a group, issue or belief system. Rather, it allows counselors — just as we allow other professionals like doctors and lawyers — to refer a client to another counselor when the goals or behaviors would violate a sincerely held principle. I believe it is reasonable to allow these professionals to determine if and when an individual would be better served by another counselor better suited to meet his or her needs."

The Tennesseean reports how legislators changed the wording on the bill from "sincerely held religious belief" to "sincerely held religious principles" of the counselor. The 1,300-word story also quotes backers and detractors at roughly equal length.

ACA spokesman Art Terrazas says the law "disproportionately affects LGBTQ Tennesseans seeking counseling." He warns darkly that Haslam "has ignored the lessons learned in North Carolina, Georgia and Mississippi" -- an apparent reference to bad press and business boycotts.

Among the backers are David Fowler, president of the Family Action Council of Tennessee. He says the law shows that there is "still room in Tennessee for counselors who have a belief system that informs everything they do, including the kind of counsel they believe they can in good conscience provide to their clients."

Finally, the Tennesseean says what the ACA changed -- something WaPo didn’t say:

The measure stemmed from a 2014 change in the American Counseling Association’s code of ethics aimed at preventing discrimination against people in need of counseling services. The state licensing board for professional counselors and marital and family therapists incorporates the ACA’s ethics code into its rules and regulations — a violation of which subjects licensees to sanctions.

It's a good article despite a couple of flaws. One is divulging the psychologist's religion (Presbyterian), but no one else's. Perhaps it's because he directs a Christian-based counseling service. But if the original motivation for the law is alleged to be religious, as some opponents have charged, wouldn't it be fair to give the religions of all the quoted sources?

At least the Wall Street Journal gets the story right, both in fact and tone:

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam signed a law Wednesday that allows professional counselors to use personally held principles as reasons to refuse clients and refer them on, projecting his state into the national debate over measures affecting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
Opponents of the Tennessee law, including the American Counseling Association, view it as a first-in-the-nation tool that will codify discrimination against the LGBT community. Supporters have defended the law as a nondiscriminatory measure that will protect counselors who provide help for people dealing with issues ranging from marital concerns to drug dependency.

Lookit that: no slant, no sarcasm quotes, plus context and balance. All in the first two paragraphs. The rest of the article is like that, even giving the reason for the law: "because the ACA revised its code of ethics in 2014 to add language saying counselors should refrain from referring clients based on the counselors’ own values, attitudes, beliefs and behaviors."

On the other side, WSJ cites opponents' concerns about referrals for people in rural areas. It adds an objection from the Human Rights Campaign that a counselor may not want a client who is considering conversion to another religion. (The story should allowed a backer of the law to answer that, though.)

The Journal adds some context with bills elsewhere, though I'm not sure they belong together. In Mississippi, the law is about religious objections to serving gays. In North Carolina, it was about transgender people in rest rooms. And in Missouri, it was about catering same-sex weddings (and the bill died in committee this week).

Still, the newspaper did a fine job of explaining the controversy in a mere 700 words or so -- even with the context taking up half the story. Imagine what more local media could have accomplished, if they'd tried.

Thumbnail: Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam at the National Governors Association Education, Early Childhood and Workforce Committee meeting in Washington, D.C., in 2012. Public domain photo by Lance Cheung for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, via Wikimedia (CC-By-2.0).


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