Dear Governor Haslam,
This week, the State Legislature sent you a bill to legalize discrimination in counseling. Against the professional ethics that guide therapists, against standards of professional practice, against the will and good hearts of the fair-minded people of Tennessee, the State Legislature allowed the fevers of our times to confuse their good thinking. And now it lies on your desk, awaiting your signature or your veto. I’m writing because I hope you will do the right thing and will veto that bill.
Imagine an emergency room in a rural county that offers medical care to anyone who comes in. Anyone, that is, except people who were left-handed. Would you say that emergency room operated on principle? Or would you say it ran on discrimination? Imagine a pharmacy in a remote area that provided life-saving medication, but when an elderly person drove up, the pharmacy shut its window, saying, “we don’t serve the elderly.” Again: is the animating ethical fuel a matter of principle or discrimination?
Now imagine a therapist in a rural area–somewhere without many choices, and no public transportation. A teenager finally works up the courage to make an appointment with a therapist. This teenager has been bullied, shunned, beaten down. But now, maybe, there’s hope for support, for the mental healthcare that means the difference between a flourishing life or else suicide. And this teenager walks in, in this life or death moment, and the therapist says, “Get out. I don’t serve people like you.” Of course, supporters of this bill say it wouldn’t go like that. The therapist might say “please,” or act like a nice person. But still.
You can put lipstick on a pig and it will still be a pig. And you can dress up discrimination drained of mercy with the trappings of piety, but that still doesn’t make it anything resembling the will of God.
I’m privileged to be working toward licensure as a therapist in the State of Tennessee. So, I know the American Counseling Association, the Tennessee Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, and any other credible professional organization of therapists you could find are correct when they say that this bad bill endorses unethical practice, outside the bounds of professional guidelines.
In fact, Art Terrazas, of the American Counseling Association, says that the bill has become so broad in its endorsement of discrimination that, if enacted, a therapist who opposed war could refuse to treat a veteran with PTSD. To refuse treatment to someone who’s suffering, someone in need, is not just unethical or outrageous for a professional mental healthcare provider. It is downright heartless.
I’m honored to have served as a pastor here for the last thirteen years in Oak Ridge, in this state where I grew up knowing the difference between right and wrong. I’ve had the opportunity to meet people on the front lines of suffering, and to throw them the life-raft of a compassionate heart, a listening ear, and a prayer. Sometimes they’ve been working people, struggling to make it through. Sometimes, they’ve been veterans, figuring out how to make it here, back home from down-range. And sometimes, Governor, they’ve been Tennesseans who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender teenagers. And won’t be surprised to hear they get bullied more than other kids. You might know life can be harder for them, as they struggle like any teenager to grow up into adults. Governor, you might not be surprised to know that some of these teenagers have contemplated ending their lives. I thank God for the adults in their lives with the presence, patience, and mercy to give them some time and a listening ear. But finding a caring adult is not all that they need. Like anyone struggling with adversity over time, especially at a young age, to the point of thinking dark thoughts, these young people are in need of mental health services, provided by professional therapists, working within strict professional guidelines. I do not exaggerate when I remind you that the presence or withholding of competent mental healthcare is too often the difference between life or death. And that the bill on your desk, if you signed it, would result in the deaths of young people.
I ask you to veto it because it is wrong. A well-funded outfit in Orlando, Florida called The Liberty Counsel has been churning out Mickey Mouse legislation like this all over the country, stirring up the worst among us, aimed at dividing us, trying to set neighbor against neighbor. And they call it “freedom.” They even dare to associate what they do with Christ.
Well, we’re not a theocracy like Iran. Our Founders put forth a clear separation between church and state. But if you wonder what Jesus would say on this particular bill, I would ask you to return to Luke 10:25-37, the Parable of the Good Samaritan.
In it, a lawyer means to test Jesus, to elicit a legalistic understanding of what it means to be a neighbor. In reply, Jesus tells a story of a man on the road to Jericho, knocked in a ditch by robbers. His supposed leaders pass the man by, averting their eyes. Then a third man, a Samaritan, arrives and offers outrageously compassionate and generous aid. At the story’s conclusion, Jesus asks the lawyer, which of the three passers-by was a neighbor. The lawyer replies, “The one who showed mercy.” And Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.”
Governor, the Jericho Road runs right through Tennessee. In the ditch alongside it, you’ll see real Tennesseans with real suffering. And up on the road, you’ll see people parading by, invested in appearing to be people of faith, with their nose in the air and their glances averted. Sometimes, their show of piety will have them holding forth on legislation from Orlando as if it had anything to do with the heart of Jesus, let alone the least of these in our state. But you know better. You’ve got a good heart. And you know that Jesus didn’t ask us to turn away from those in need. You know what he meant in the story of the Good Samaritan. So, go and do likewise. Act from compassion, with justice. Please veto that bill.