For Tennessee Governor Weighing Religious Objection Bill, It's All About Values

Apr 21, 2016
Originally published on April 21, 2016 9:41 am

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.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now let's hear about another Tennessee politician. He is Tennessee's Republican governor, Bill Haslam, who used to be mayor of the city where we are this morning, Knoxville, Tenn.

(APPLAUSE)

INSKEEP: We reached out to the governor as we get the view from Appalachia, the region we're hearing from today, just as we heard from the Midwest early this month on another program. Bill Haslam's state is partly in the Appalachian Mountains and, of course, partly out.

BILL HASLAM: They look very different because of heritage and culture and tradition. Internally, the issues, I think, boil down to the same key things.

INSKEEP: For example, Gov. Haslam told us if you go to an urban area or if you go the Appalachian Mountains, you will find that in areas, education levels really matter.

HASLAM: And I can almost track in reverse correlation degree attainment and unemployment in our county-by-county basis, and it's a 1-to-1 match - or I guess I should say mismatch.

INSKEEP: Now let me ask you about this political year. We've been interviewing voters. Our team has been in different parts of Tennessee, and I'd like to play you some tape of what we've heard, including this from Shannon Mettler (ph). He's a supporter of Donald Trump. He's a Republican, describes himself as a disabled veteran. We found him in the city of Knoxville.

SHANNON METTLER: I know the man is bombastic. I know the man says so many things that people think, you shouldn't say that, you shouldn't say - but he's always had women in high positions. He's always had equal opportunity for equal people in his businesses. We already know this man. He is talking exactly the same way he will talk behind closed doors.

INSKEEP: Does Trump feel more trustworthy to you, or is there something about the way this man approaches politics that resonates with people where you are?

HASLAM: I don't think it's just where I am, by the way. This isn't an Appalachian phenomenon by any means. There is a high degree of frustration out there that I think a lot of folks are feeling as they feel either the world changing rapidly or their personal situation changing. And for whatever reason, they think Mr. Trump can answer those problems.

INSKEEP: Well, we're in a situation, of course, where there's been a lot said in this presidential campaign. And we also interviewed Christopher Dunn, who is a student at Lincoln Memorial University in Tennessee. He is no fan of Donald Trump. He's also no fan of Ted Cruz. He says the two candidates he supports the least - and this is a Republican - those two candidates are in the lead.

CHRISTOPHER DUNN: Being pro-life, I can't support carpet bombing the Middle East. I can't support turning away refugees to die. I can't support deporting immigrants to live in poverty and possibly die, all when that's what our country was founded on, was immigration.

INSKEEP: Well, Governor, how much danger is there that your party is going to nominate somebody who just can't win in November?

HASLAM: Well, I think that's always a realistic concern. Interestingly, when you look at polls - and again, not just here, but across the country - people coming out of voting and primaries, when they ask how important is it to win November, it's only third or fourth most important. To me, it feels like it should be much, much more important than that. I think if you really care who the next president is, you should think about, can this person win?

INSKEEP: Do you think the party could get away with, if I can phrase it that way, nominating someone who isn't the person who ends up getting the most primary votes or the most delegates?

HASLAM: I think if somebody doesn't have 50 percent of delegates but is at 47 or 48 percent, it's pretty hard to take that away from them at that point. But if they're at 38, 39, 40 percent, that's a very different situation.

INSKEEP: Governor, let me ask you about something that is maybe not an Appalachian trend, precisely, but does seem to be a Southern trend - multiple Southern states have debated or passed bills related to religion. You just vetoed a bill to make the Bible the official state book, for example. Why'd you veto that?

HASLAM: Well, for three reasons. One, I had some issues around the constitutionality. But even more from that - personally, I think it trivializes the Bible. We have an official state, you know, insect and state salamander and 500 other things. That's not what the Bible is. And then third, it would be - the bill was passed kind of under the premise that well, we're not honoring it as holy Scripture. We're honoring it for its historical and economic significance. Well, either the Bible's the inspired word of God or it's not. But don't honor it for - pretending you're honoring it for one thing when you're really honoring it for another.

INSKEEP: Well, you know, Governor, that North Carolina and Mississippi passed what are called bathroom bills...

HASLAM: Right.

INSKEEP: ...Having to do with requiring that people can only use the bathroom of the gender that they were assigned at birth. Such a bill was withdrawn, I know, in Tennessee, but I believe you've got another one on your desk regarding therapists saying that they can refuse service to people based on their religious principles. What do you think of that?

HASLAM: Well, I - the bill is before us now. We haven't said or decided what we're going to do on signing it or vetoing it. But - and let me say a general comment and then a specific one to that. Everybody should admit that 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, as was Hillary Clinton and Bill Clinton not long ago. And so my point would be the nation is trying to catch up with a rapidly changing world, and people aren't quite sure how to define where we stand.

So on the therapist bill - I mean, the American Counseling Association says that 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. I personally wonder, like - I think 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. And so I think the question is can you counsel from a totally non-value-based position?

INSKEEP: What do you say to somebody who might have just listened to you say that and replied, well, you just ought to serve everyone?

HASLAM: Well, lawyers don't serve everyone. If you go to a lawyer right now and say, I'd like help on this legal issue, lawyers right now can say, I'm not the person help you on that issue. I don't agree with what you're trying to do.

INSKEEP: Gov. Bill Haslam, thanks very much.

HASLAM: Thank you. I enjoyed being on the show.

INSKEEP: And later, we asked the governor why neighboring Kentucky embraced Obamacare and his state did not. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.