Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam says he is deciding whether to sign legislation that would allow therapists to refuse service based on religious objections.
In an interview with NPR's Morning Edition, he said he is "talking to a lot of folks to get some input" on the bill and that he had boiled his thinking down to this central question: whether therapists could truly leave their values out of their work.
On one hand, he points out that the American Counseling Association "says you should always counsel from a valueless position. In other words, you don't put your own values into the conversation; you're there to help."
But, he added, "I personally wonder ... regardless of whether you're a religious person or not, everybody comes into every conversation with a particular worldview and things that you believe are right or wrong. The question is can you counsel from a totally non-value-based position?"
The bill was approved by Tennessee lawmakers in April and would stipulate that licensed counselors not be punished if they refer clients to other therapists over "sincerely held principles," as Nashville Public Radio has reported. LGBT advocates say the bill would make it harder for gays and lesbians to get counseling.
Asked about the argument that therapists should have an obligation to serve everyone, Haslam said, "Lawyers don't serve everyone. ... Lawyers right now can say, 'I'm not the person to help you on that issue; I don't agree with what you're trying to do'; and they can turn down that person and they can go somewhere else."
The bill is part of a widespread reaction to the national focus on same-sex marriage and transgender rights. The state's governor is the latest chief executive to be placed at the center of that national debate.
Haslam last week vetoed a proposal to make the Bible the official state book. He told NPR it "trivializes the Bible." He also successfully urged lawmakers to withdraw a so-called bathroom bill, Tennessee's version of legislation that would require students to use restrooms according to their gender assigned at birth rather than one that matches the gender with which they identify. North Carolina and Mississippi have both approved such laws amid widespread criticism.
"In general, everybody should admit the world is changing really fast and it's hard for the conversations to keep up. I mean, it's hard to remember now, but when Barack Obama ran for president he was against gay marriage," he said.
"The nation is trying to catch up with a rapidly changing world. And people aren't quite sure how to define where we stand."
Listen to NPR's interview with Haslam above.