NASHVILLE, TENN. >> By canceling its conference in Tennessee next year, the American Counseling Association wants to put other states on notice that new LGBT laws can carry consequences, the group's leader said.
The cancellation announced Tuesday, hinted at after the Tennessee General Assembly passed a new law letting therapists decline to see patients based on religious values and personal principles, is aimed at preventing similar measures elsewhere.
"Our message to other states is don't introduce bills that are essentially legalizing discrimination," said Richard Yep, the organization's CEO. "It is discriminating against those who are least able to fight back."
The conference would have brought between 3,500 to 4,000 people to Nashville, he said. The Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp. estimates that it would have generated $2.5 million in direct visitor spending and $444,609 in tax revenue for the city and the state of Tennessee.
Nashville Mayor Megan Barry and tourist officials in the Music City have vocally opposed the legislation and warned of a possible backlash.
Butch Spyridon, president and CEO of Nashville Convention & Visitors, said he was disappointed but not surprised.
"This cancellation is the second one and is likely just the tip of the iceberg when you consider all the other groups that won't consider us now," Spyridon said. "It is regrettable that all the hard work and investment to make Nashville a top destination has been unnecessarily undone by politics."
The ACA had already booked its expo in the Music City toward the end of March but decided to cancel after careful consideration and hearing from its members, Yep said. He said he appreciated the city's efforts to fight the law and raised the possibility that the organization would someday come to Nashville once the measure is repealed.
Supporters of the law have said it keeps the government from forcing people to counsel others to act in ways that conflict with a therapist's moral beliefs. The law, backers say, isn't just about LGBT patients. For instance, supporters of the measure say, a religious counselor should not be forced to affirm the value of someone with a terminal illness who wants to die by suicide. They have maintained that laws are still in place to prevent counselors from abandoning or discriminating against patients based on sexual preference or identity.
The measure passed amid a flurry of legislation across the country that critics say discriminates against the LGBT community.
The ACA has condemned Tennessee's new law as a "hate bill" that discriminates against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. The organization says no other state has passed such a law and it has vowed to work to get it repealed, calling it an attack on the counseling profession.
In addition to calling it discriminatory, the organization says the law could wind up harming emotionally vulnerable people seeking help, including ones who may have bonded with a therapist and was later rejected because of something they revealed to a person they trusted.
There is some disagreement about whether the ACA's previous code of ethics, before it was updated in 2014, allowed counselors to refer patients to other therapists when there was a clash over values. The organization disputes that interpretation. Religious counselors say they were able to make the referrals and it worked just fine in the past.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam signed the legislation that made it law. A spokeswoman for Haslam said the law puts counselors in line with other positions.
"The governor believes that, at the end of the day, counselors should be like any other professionals, such as doctors or lawyers, and have the availability to decide whether they can appropriately serve a client," Jennifer Donnals said in an email. "This law provides that a therapist cannot turn away someone in a life-threatening situation and has to refer the client to another appropriate therapist, providing protection for the client as well as respecting the therapist as a professional."