Tennessee lawmakers may have failed to advance an anti-transgender bill that mirrored North Carolina’s HB2, but they did pass a bill enabling religious-based discrimination in counseling. Now, a lawsuit is taking aim at that law and the way it could be used to refuse treatment to the LGBT community.
Activists Bleu Copas and Caleb Laieski argue in their suit that even if words referring to the LGBT community were not explicitly included in the law, it was clearly intended to target those people specifically. Based on the language used in various drafts and particularly in floor debates, “LGBT persons were the target of the Statute. They are singled out for discriminatory treatment. There is no other group which could conceivably be the target of the Statute.”
They contend that Tennessee’s Constitution’s “Class Legislation Clause,” which “guarantees that persons similarly situated shall be treated alike” functions just like the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution. By singling out the LGBT community for disparate treatment, the law violates that provision of the state constitution.
Both activists are veterans of the LGBT movement. Laieski, who lives just outside Washington, D.C., is just 21, but was a vocal advocate to protect students from anti-gay bullying after he was forced to drop out of high school at 16. Copas, a Tennessee native, is a literal veteran — an Army Sergeant and Arabic linguist — who was discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and then fought to help repeal that discriminatory law. But for Copas, this suit is very personal, as he’s trained in the counseling field.
“The mental health field is sacred to me,” he told ThinkProgress. “I have my master’s in counseling and work currently in the mental health field as a Peer Support Specialist for military veterans.” He believes that when discrimination is allowed in this kind of work, “it taints the idea that therapy or mental health treatment is safe.”
Receiving counseling has been an important part of his life too. It was a therapist at East Tennessee State University that he first told that he was gay and in a relationship with a man. Then, still uncomfortable with his sexuality, he pursued a faith-based curriculum for “corrective” counseling. “Thankfully,” he said, “I got tired of leaving therapy in shame and disempowered, and decided to quit.” Though he came to terms with his sexuality, therapy then again proved vital as he handled the trauma of his discharge and the “abrupt transition back into civilian life.”
These different experiences have proven to Copas that being able to find the right therapist is important, but that it’s the client who should be empowered to make that decision. “Sometimes it just isn’t a good fit,” he explained. “I’ve tried to be a strong self-advocate and request a new therapist that I feel understands me. Even as a Peer Support Specialist, I respect the fact that some veterans can get better help working with other colleagues.”
But that’s not the same as a therapist refusing service because of “deeply held principles,” as the law allows. That, Copas insisted, is simply discrimination when it’s based on a client’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
And it makes the state less safe. “I think it makes growing up gay in Tennessee even more dangerous,” he said. “There’s still a lot of opposition to LGBT equality across the state, especially in rural areas. Knowing how growing up I felt like I couldn’t tell anyone about being gay, and feeling that my church, my school, my family would reject me for being gay, I realize now how crucial it is to let that kid know that Tennessee is a safe place for them.”
The lawsuit points out that prior to this law, Tennessee had embraced the 2014 American Counseling Association Code of Ethics as the ethics code for the state’s counselors and therapists. That code specifically includes a provision (A.11.b.) specifically stating that counselors should “refrain from referring prospective and current clients based solely on the counselor’s personally held values, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors.” By carving around that, Copas believe the new law “discredits the mental health profession in this state because it ignores ethical codes.”
The result will be that Tennessee becomes a less welcoming state for LGBT people, something both plaintiffs hope to avoid. As Laieski explained in a statement provided to ThinkProgress, “The goal [of the suit] is to send a clear message to Tennessee that discrimination will not be tolerated, especially when it jeopardizes folks seeking mental health services.”
Copas wants LGBT people in his home state to know that “they are not alone and that there are open and loving arms ready to embrace and support them,” citing PFLAG, Tennessee Equality Project, and the many affirmative, churches, sports leagues, and artistic communities across the state. If a therapist cites the law to justify rejecting them from treatment — thereby rejecting who they are in the process — they should make sure they are safe and out of danger. “Call 911 or go to an emergency room if they need immediate help,” he advised, then seek out a group that will provide the affirmation they need and deserve.
And he doesn’t mince words for the therapists contemplating using this law while it’s in effect. “If you can’t adhere to a code of ethics, find another field,” Copas said. “It’s like me wanting to become an Alabama fan, but as long as I can still wear my orange and sing Rocky Top at the games when Alabama scores.”