Back in step with the last legislative session, Sen. Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, has introduced the first bill of the 109th General Assembly with a topic familiar to him – counseling.

Last year, the Franklin Republican faced backlash after pushing forward legislation from Senate Bill 1556. It narrowed down into a particular portion of the American Counseling Association Code of Ethics in regard to who counselors could treat based on their belief systems.

Now, the law allows counselors with “sincerely held principles” to turn away patients and recommend them to someone else.

The LGBT community felt threatened by his legislation, expressing they were primarily targeted. The new law does not apply if the individual seeking or undergoing counseling is in imminent danger of harming themselves or others. 

Johnson largely said his law was mischaracterized and taken out of context. He blamed “misreporting” from the media.

But as a result, at least three conferences pulled out of Nashville citing the counseling bill as the reason, costing Tennessee thousands in tourism revenue.

I was undoing a change made by the American Counseling Association,” Johnson said. “It was a real radical change and nothing consistent with what we do.”

Senate Bill 1 doesn’t cherry pick the American Counseling Association’s Code of Ethics this go-round. Instead, it’s calling for what could become a complete overhaul. It’s simply something Johnson said he felt needed addressing.

While therapists and counselors came to him last year with Senate Bill 1556, this legislative session’s bill comes from his own prompting. He expressed no one asked him to put the bill forward.

Here is what he wants changed:

SECTION 1. Tennessee Code Annotated, Section 63-22-102(1), is amended by deleting the subdivision in its entirety and substituting instead the following: (A) Promulgate rules in accordance with the Uniform Administrative Procedures Act, compiled in title 4, chapter 5, as are necessary to carry out and make effective this part; and (B) In addition to the rules promulgated pursuant to subdivision (1)(A), promulgate rules in accordance with title 4, chapter 5, and § 63-22-110(d) that adopt ethical standards or a code of ethics; provided, however, such rules shall not require a counselor or therapist to counsel or serve a client as to goals, outcomes, or behaviors that conflict with the sincerely held beliefs of the counselor or therapist; provided, that the counselor or therapist coordinates a referral of the client to another counselor or therapist who will provide the counseling or therapy, and the individual seeking or undergoing counseling or therapy is not in imminent danger of harming themselves or others; SECTION 2. Tennessee Code Annotated, Section 63-22-110(b)(3), is amended by deleting the subdivision in its entirety and substituting instead the following: (3) Violating a rule adopted by the board if the rule is consistent with the requirements set out in subsection

Here is what he wants added: 

(d) The board shall not promulgate any rule that incorporates by reference a national association’s code of ethics, including, but not limited to, the American Counseling Association Code of Ethics. SECTION 4. Tennessee Code Annotated, Section 63-22-302(a), is amended by deleting the language “principles” and substituting instead the language “beliefs.”

Instead of adopting the ACA’s entire Code of Ethics, Johnson suggested that the Board for Professional Counselors, Marital and Family Therapists, and Clinical Pastoral Therapists come up with their own ethics. The state is currently guided by the ACA’s 24 pages worth of ethics last updated in 2014.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate that we delegate that responsibility to a special interest group from Washington,” Johnson said. “There are other organizations that represent them. I think it’s worth having our own conversation … Tennesseans are best suited to determine what our state licensure requirements for our professional counselors should be rather than subrogating that right to a private organization.

“I believe our State Board of Professional Counselors is capable of this responsibility and that all Tennesseans seeking counseling will benefit as a result.”

Having the conversation could come come at a price, at least from the American Counseling Association’s perspective.

Right now, the ACA sees the potential for this type of legislation to become dangerous.

I think what you do is run the risk of a couple of things,” ACA’s‎ Director of Government Affairs Art Terrazas said. “The insurance companies – who underwrite the liability – are going to take a second look if they want to insure the counselor outside of the code of ethics. There could be an impact if they stay or remained employed in the state of Tennessee.

“If they are meeting the industry standard, they may not want to practice there. Those who need to seek mental health clinicians could find there will be less of them. We are talking about folks suffering from depression, to those under 18, military families and also our veterans.”

Terrazas said Tennessee could be considered a trailblazer, a trendsetter or an outlier depending on who’s asking.

We use the term ‘unprecedented,'” Terrazas said. “Not only has this not happened, but no other state has done this before.” 

Rich Yep – ACA’s CEO – said yes, they do have a special interest. The same one Johnson’s also interested in, which is the client.

“Our special interest happens to be those who are consumers of mental health services,” Yep said. “We have over 1,000 licensed counselors in Tennessee, and our code of ethics is based on more than 50 years of practice and research and what’s best to protect consumers.

“The code of ethics is to protect the consumer. We disagree with the fact of his proposed legislation. We want to protect the citizens.”

That protection could also be threatened in the form of client confidentiality, another chief concern from the ACA.

“There is a question of whether the privacy requirements going to be met and upheld,” Terrazas said. “That is a big question if you decide to scrap a code.”

The ACA said moving forward into session, it would be more than opposed to this legislation, provided it finds a sponsor in the House.

I think that’s a no-brainer when the senator specifically names us in his bill,” Yep said.

The General Assembly will start its next legislative session Jan. 10.

Emily West covers Franklin, education, and the state legislature for the Franklin Home Page. Contact her at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter via @emwest22.