Tennessee Legislation and ACA actions

Summary—ACA and the Tennessee legislation to deny services
Prepared by ACA Staff
April 27, 2016

BACKGROUND

Over the past two months, ACA leadership and staff have been in high gear relative to legislation in Tennessee that would allow counselors to deny services to individuals simply because of a strongly held belief of the mental health professional. This flies in the face of the Code of Ethics and is an opportunity for blanket discrimination to many groups of people who would benefit from mental health services provided by professional counselors.

This legislation was promoted by the Family Action Council of Tennessee, a very conservative religious “freedom” group that was also a partner in the Ward v. Wilbanks case in which a counselor education student was dismissed from her program at Eastern Michigan University because she refused to work with a gay client.

When the legislation (SB1556/HB1840) was introduced, ACA through its state legislative monitoring immediately began implementing a program to seek defeat of the bill. The original bill said that a counselor could deny services based on a strongly held religious belief. However, the bill was later amended to ANY strongly held belief or value.

Supporters of the bill specifically targeted the ACA Code of Ethics and called us out any number of times during debate and in the local media. These non-counselors claim that ACA specifically changed its Code in the latest revision to prohibit non-discrimination. In actuality, this has been part of the Code for more than 20 years.

LIST OF ACTIONS

Here is a summary of the actions taken by ACA leadership and professional staff over the past six to eight weeks since the legislation was introduced:

1. ACA hired a well-respected lobbyist in Tennessee to help us navigate House and Senate offices.
2. ACA staff has flown to Tennessee a number of times to lobby members of the Legislature.
3. Numerous press calls were initiated, and we organized a press conference.
4. In addition to the major Tennessee media outlets, talked with national reporters from the Wall Street Journal, Mental Health Weekly, National Public Radio, and other out-of-state television and radio stations
5. Coordinated a “lobby day of action” in the state capitol
6. Gathered over 7,000 signatures asking the Governor to veto the bill
7. Gathered over 5,000 signatures to send to members of the state House asking them to vote against the bill.
8. Hired a public affairs firm and worked with them to create a digital media campaign asking legislators to vote against the bill
9. ACA testified against the bill when it was in the Health subcommittee in the House
10. Talked to Governor Haslam’s legislative staff about the bill
11. Helped the Tennessee Counseling Association through their discernment over this issue that then resulted in their official stand against the bill.
12. Two blast emails to full membership explaining the situation and ACA’s position. One was sent on March 24 and the other on April 13.
13. Updated membership with articles in two eNews editions: April 12 and April 26.
14. The issue was covered in two ACA Member Toolkits on March 3 and April 5
15. We have posted information on the ACA home page under Latest News on April 13 and March 24
16. ACA has spearheaded some unique coalitions during this period. Some of these coalitions are part of our traditional partners, while others are somewhat non-traditional. In addition to mental health and LGBTQ equity organizations, our work with the Human Rights Campaign, the NAACP, and business coalitions in Tennessee that include the Nashville Visitors and Convention Corporation have proven to be both vocal and powerful.
17. We have utilized ACA’s growing presence on social media, and also tagged Governor Haslam’s Facebook profile and Twitter handle.
18. For Facebook posts between March 25 and April 12, we “reached” more than 205,000 people.
19. From an internal standpoint, ACA staff has held almost daily meetings (including when we were in Montreal at the conference) to discuss developments, strategies, and next steps regarding not just the situation in Tennessee, but the impact, implications, and future of ACA and the counseling profession in a world where we literally are dealing with a fundamental threat to the profession
20. Conservative estimate of the amount of unbudgeted funds ACA has spent on this issue is $65,000 (and this does not include staff time)

NEXT STEPS

There have been a number of members who are weighing in on the issue without an understanding what is going on. We believe that ACA, the divisions, and the regions, need to share information that will educate members so that they understand the issue and the impact it could have on the profession, as well as potential clients and students. To take this action of education, will help all of us make a better informed (and strategic) decision.

The ACA Governing Council needs to wait for the outcome of the legislation (if it becomes law or is vetoed and dies) before it can make a final decision to bring the annual conference to Nashville in 2017 or relocate. What we can say is that the board has asked staff to look at the various alternatives and to prepare information for them to review. That task has been occurring for several weeks.

Some posts have implied that ACA will keep the conference in Nashville due to the financial impact of pulling out. Nothing could be further from the truth and that rumor needs to be quashed. The board has been apprised of the cost to relocate the conference and not one member of the board (or senior staff) have used that as a reason to stay in Nashville.

As counselors, it is important to model appropriate behavior, so the decision to stay in Nashville or relocate is critical. One way or the other, we need to demonstrate that we are not imposing our values and (if we go to Nashville) we send the signal that we are willing to work with a state that has not been open to working with us but whose residents (and fellow counselors) need our support.

Should the 2017 conference stay in Nashville, a series of actions, rallies, and advocacy will likely occur. Coordination of media, working with our various coalitions, and a clear targeted message will need to be part of the strategy. However, in order for our message to be crystal clear, coordination will be key.

There have been some wonderful ideas that ACA, division, region, and branch leaders have suggested. Once the outcome of the legislation is final, and the Governing Council makes their decision as to the location of the 2017 annual conference, it is suggested that all ideas be considered and that this be done in unity. While we all respect those who have individual opinions about this matter, working together as a counseling community will have a greater impact on those most affected.

The hope is that the current calls for boycotts or declaring that we will (or will not) be doing something can be held in abeyance for the next few weeks while we await the decision of the Governor and the Legislature in Tennessee. Please note that the Governor’s decision could come as early as tomorrow (Thursday, April 28).

Janet de Vries

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