I'm a pastor and people who know me are aware that I care deeply about matters pertaining to religious liberty and church-state separation. I'm pretty sensitive to possible government intrusions into matters of faith. In this regard, something in the news earlier this week caught my attention.
Conversion therapy involves attempting to transform homosexual desires into heterosexual desires. On Monday, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie signed into law a bill banning licensed therapists from practicing conversion therapy with teenagers. A similar measure was passed in California last year but implementation is currently held up in federal court. Massachusetts and New York have introduced similar bans in their state legislatures this year.
Many experts believe conversion therapy is not only ineffective but harmful. I don't have nearly enough knowledge about the process to know whether or not this is true, but let's say it is true. In that case, here's my question: Is conversion therapy so harmful as to warrant government intrusion into what is for many a matter of religious faith?
Many, if not most, of those who practice conversion therapy and who seek conversion therapy do so as a function of their faith. Many homosexuals embrace that part of their identity without question. Others, often because of their religious beliefs, experience great distress concerning same-sex attraction and they seek help sometimes through conversion therapy. So conversion therapy is very much an act of faith for some. That being the case, the practice would need be considered extremely harmful in order to merit a government ban.
The state laws in question are limited in that they involve only minors and only licensed therapists. Therefore, religious groups using this process may continue to do so with minors as long as they are not utilizing licensed professionals. Yet including this limitation may still be problematic in relationship to government intrusion into matters of faith. If a minor, due to his or her religious beliefs, is in acute distress over same sex attraction, should that minor be barred by the government from seeking the help of a licensed therapist who might use some degree of conversion therapy as a step on a longer journey of healing?
Again, the main question for me is whether conversion therapy is so ineffective and damaging that it deserves a government ban on what is for many an act of faith? If a teenager expresses extreme anguish over same sex attraction, should government intervention prohibit a pastor from even considering a referral of this young person to a licensed professional who might attempt conversion therapy? Should a teenager be barred by the government from taking this avenue of exploring his or her sexual identity, no matter where that process ultimately leads?
I don't have the answers to such questions, but I think the questions need to be discussed. It could be that conversion therapy for minors is so ineffective and dangerous that it deserves a government ban. But it is also possible that a door is being opened to a level of government intrusion into matters of faith that should be left closed.