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The bill is part of a wave of legislation in Southern states, often pushed under the guise of "religious freedom," which seeks to limit the human and civil rights of LGBTQ people. (Photo: Christopher "Rice"/flickr/cc)

Tennessee Joins Spate of States Passing Anti-LGBTQ 'Hate Bills'

Tennessee lawmakers pass bill allowing counselors to reject LGBTQ patients and push measure banning female transgender students from women's bathrooms

Nika Knight Beauchamp

On Monday, Tennessee lawmakers passed a bill that makes it legal for therapists and other counselors to reject LGBTQ patients because of "sincerely held religious beliefs," jeopardizing hundreds of thousands' access to medical care.

Art Terrazas, director of government affairs for the American Counseling Association, told ABC that the bill was an "unprecedented attack" on the counseling profession.

"An anti-bullying amendment was stripped from the bill in the House Health Committee leaving youth vulnerable in areas where mental health services are not widely available," writes the LGBTQ advocacy group Tennessee Equality Project in an appeal to Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam asking him to veto the measure.

"The bill passed by the legislature is a more discriminatory version of legislation approved earlier this year," the Huffington Post reported. "That measure stated that therapists and counselors could turn away patients based on 'sincerely held beliefs.' The state House last week passed a version that expanded grounds for shunning patients to 'principles,' which the Senate approved on Monday."

And a 'sincerely held principle' is not a known legal concept, one Democratic state senator argued, and could conceivably apply to anything—meaning counselors could also reject patients on the basis of race, sex, and national origin.

"Our leaders should oppose any effort that could subject students to discrimination, psychological or even physical harm."
—Rick Mula,
Southern Poverty Law Center

Meanwhile, just last week, the Tennessee legislature revived a bill barring female transgender students from women's restrooms. After dying in subcommittee last March, the bill, known as HB 2414, was resurrected last week by the addition of an amendment that allows transgender students to appeal the rule. Both the original legislation and the amended version are heading this week to the Tennessee House Finance, Ways and Means subcommittee. If the subcomittee approves them, the bills will head to the House for a vote.

"We are deeply disappointed by the House Education Administration & Planning Committee’s decision to advance this discriminatory and costly bill that that does nothing to increase the safety and well-being of Tennessee students," said executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Tennessee Hedy Weinberg in response to the bill's revival.

Weinberg continued, "We are disappointed that lawmakers ignored the growing chorus of opposition to this bill from a diverse range of Tennesseans, including transgender students and their families, educators, clergy, doctors, the business community, the entertainment industry, advocates and more. Every child in Tennessee deserves to be treated with respect and dignity. We will continue to fight this harmful legislation."

Both bills are part of a wave of legislation in Southern states, often pushed under the guise of "religious freedom," which seeks to limit the human and civil rights of LGBTQ people. Some speculate that the trend may be a reactionary response to last year's Supreme Court decision that made same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states.

So-called "bathroom bills," such as that being considered in Tennessee, are based on the specious fear that transgender women would assault non-trans women in a restroom. No single case of such an assault has ever been documented.

What has been documented, however, are the damaging and lingering physical and psychological effects of being barred from using a bathroom.

A Tennessee attorney for the civil rights advocacy group Southern Poverty Law Center, Rick Mula, wrote in the Knoxville News Sentinel about the non-profit's recent amicus brief filed against another state's bathroom bill. "Working with other LGBT organizations," Mula wrote, "we compiled examples of the real-world effects of such policies. They included a transgender boy who avoided using the school restroom for three years. Another transgender youth developed a weak bladder from avoiding the school restroom. A 17-year-old transgender girl dropped out of school because of issues surrounding her gender."

"Our leaders should oppose any effort that could subject students to discrimination, psychological or even physical harm," argued Mula.

Meanwhile, it seems that one of the bill's own sponsors, Jeremy Durham, is under fire himself for alleged sexual harassment of female colleagues and staffers, provoking accusations of hypocrisy from the bill's critics. 

Durham's sexual harassment has allegedly been so prevalent that he is not only facing immense pressure to resign, but Tenn. Speaker of the House Beth Harwell recently announced that she is moving his office across the street from the state capitol and limiting his access to the House floor, the Advocate reports.

This is also not the first time he's faced accusations of wrongdoing, the Advocate writes: "He wrote a letter—on House stationery, no less—in support of a pastor who pleaded guilty to statutory rape and possessing child pornography."

Durham resigned as Tennessee's House Majority Whip in January in response to the allegations.

The state attorney general, Herbert Slatery, is not only investigating the sexual assault allegations against Durham but has also spoken out against the state's proposed bathroom bills. He argues in an opinion (pdf) published Monday that the state would be risking the $3 billion it currently receives in federal Title IX funding if it passes such a discriminatory measure.

Slatery notes in his opinion that the federal Department of Education itself has stated that the "'plain language [of Title IX] protects all persons, including transgender students, from sex discrimination,' and interprets 'sex' as being 'broad and encompass[ing] gender identity, including transgender status,' so that a policy requiring a transgender student to use a restroom inconsistent with the student’s gender identity is 'based on impermissible sex stereotypes.'"

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