On April 27, 2016, Tennessee became the latest state to sign into law “religious freedom” legislation, permitting counselors to deny services and refer clients based on the provider’s personal beliefs. This happens to be a clear cut violation of the American Counseling Association's code of ethics. In fact, the ACA decided in light of this bill, HB 1840 being passed, the association has decided to move the ACA 2017 Conference and Expo, which was originally scheduled for Nashville, TN.

Today, we bring you thoughts on this bill from Springer author Elizabeth O'Brien, PhD, LPC, who explains why, in her opinion, this law can be so detrimental to the ACA and counseling in general.

A point of view on Tennessee House Bill 1840

I come to this blog as a counselor and counselor educator who has lived and practiced in Tennessee for the last eight years and has lived in the South for my entire life. I also have the privilege of serving as the current president for the Association for Spiritual, Ethical, and Religious Values in Counseling (ASERVIC), a division of the American Counseling Association (ACA). I believe when individuals hear these line-items about me, when they see me, that there are certain assumptions that are made regarding my personal values and beliefs.

In fact, I know this to be so, because in my first weeks of my doctoral studies I found out that one of my fellow cohort members was afraid to invite me to her home because she is gay and was concerned that my conservative values would not align with this. After this an “intervention” by a third member of our cohort ensued, who explained that our classmate was gay, was concerned that I would judge her, and was uncertain of how I would react to her and her partner in their home together. As I heard this information from one of my new cohort mates that I would be spending the next three years with, I was horrified – that who I am as a person could be perceived as a mass of southern clichés and stereotypes. It was and remains a great life lesson that informs my thoughts about TN HB 1840.

First off, I should explain that despite my description of myself and my perceptions regarding how others see me, I tend to be a pretty liberal thinker and try to be accepting of others as much as possible. In my years as a counselor, I have said that for the most part that I don’t want to influence my clients’ decisions unless they are hurting themselves, others (such as children or vulnerable adults), or animals. I say this because my clients’ decisions and values don’t belong to me; they belong to the people who come to me for help. Our clients come to us because something isn’t working in their lives, and it isn’t working to such a degree that they take a risk, open themselves up, become vulnerable, and ask a relative stranger for help.

Consider for a moment, how it feels to lay yourself emotionally bare in front of another person so that they can help you with a problem that you cannot manage. What if it is a BIG PROBLEM, perhaps one that is fraught with shame, danger, and fear? Would you reveal it all at once? Could you be that brave? Or perhaps you would take a different road, be a little more cautious, revealing your problem layer by layer so that it becomes more apparent to your counselor over weeks and months of working together.

My point in all of this is that the danger that I see in TN HB 1840 is that it lives in the land of assumptions. First, it assumes that I, as a counselor, can pare down the essence of who my client is by my first look at them, my initial impressions as determined by an intake, and the notion that my client will be completely forthcoming the first time that we meet. Much like my relationship with my former classmate, my relationship with my clients develops over time- it is built on trust and the belief that my client has the safety to speak his or her truth in my office.  Secondly, it assumes that my values and beliefs are more important than clients’. As a professional counselor I was taught that my worldview is inextricably linked with my ability to work with my clients-and I know this to be true because it paints my views of the world as a safe place, my value within the world, and my place within my community. My challenge is to move beyond the core beliefs that shade my worldview and move towards empathy-which Atticus Finch aptly described as, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view […] until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Until I can engage in this empathy to understand clients’ worldview, I am not fully engaged in the counseling process anyway.

Finally, there is the assumption that competence and ethical practice are the same. To me, competence is having the required skill set to ethically engage with a given population, such as working with transgendered clients who are engaging in gender reassignment surgery. Whereas ethical practice promotes my examination of issues that may arise as I am helping a client with issues that are within my professional skill set.

For me, the gift of the ACA code of ethics is that it expects me to continue to examine my beliefs and encourages self-exploration and growth in ways that can help me become a more competent and responsive practitioner for the clients I serve. Much as I encourage my clients to be vulnerable with me and examine their beliefs and behaviors, I too must engage in a personal growth process for the life of my career as a counselor. I can never expect to be "perfect" or align perfectly with my clients, just as I cannot allow myself to become complacent or avoid self-reflection because it is frightening or challenging. Moreover, if I have the skill set to help another; it is my personal imperative as a professional counselor to do so.