COMMENTARY

How counseling censorship laws intrude on liberty, ignore science

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Advocates of so-called “conversion therapy” bans talk darkly about “electroconvulsive shock therapy,” manipulative practices, involuntary restraint, and physical abuse. That certainly sounds bad, so when “conversion therapy” bans come before legislatures and city councils these days, they are often celebrated and waived through without serious discussion. Anyone who raises concerns is quickly demonized as “transphobic,” and silenced.

But while activists talk about extreme practices which no responsible therapist uses, and which in many cases would already be illegal under other laws, the conversion therapy bans being passed today are vastly broader, and intrude deeply into constitutionally protected freedoms of affected individuals, pastors, and therapists.

Conversion therapy bans usually include a prohibition on any counseling that might seek to change a person’s “gender identity” to align with his or her biological sex (bizarrely, counseling to help you achieve a gender identity the opposite of your sex is usually permitted). Likewise, they prohibit any counseling that seeks to change sexual attractions to align with one’s reproductive biology, or to change one’s “behaviors.” In other words, these laws bring government into the counseling room to censor speech— intensely private conversations between willing patients and the psychologist, therapist, or Christian counselor of their choice.

A better title would be “counseling censorship” laws.

But young people who are struggling with gender identity issues need uncensored counsel. Scientific studies have consistently shown that most children who suffer from “gender dysphoria”—that is, deep and painful discomfort with one’s biological sex—will grow into comfort with their bodies and biological sex by puberty or adulthood. Young people who suffer from gender dysphoria have a moral and constitutional right to receive counsel to help them towards that healthy resolution if they want it. Pastors and counselors have a right to give it. Christians have a right to teach that each of us possesses the body that God intended for us.

The loud and repeated assertion that only immediate and unquestioning affirmation of a transgender identity can avoid psychological harm and even suicide is a myth driven by ideology and unsupported by science. And the sad irony is that while conversion therapy bans claim to be aimed against abusive efforts to “change” individuals, their real effect is to steer young people towards irreversible changes to their bodies.

Tragically, increasing numbers of “detransitioners” are appearing across the country, wishing that they had not been rushed through radical procedures which permanently damaged their bodies. They feel violated by counselors and medical professionals who told them there was only one path for them. If conversion therapy bans block counselors and pastors from giving individual and uncensored counsel to patients and parishioners, the numbers of these wronged and damaged victims will only grow.

Thankfully, more people are realizing that these “conversion therapy” bans are not the liberating measures they claim to be, and they can be successfully challenged. When New York City passed a “conversion therapy” ban that reached even willing adults, the Christian civil rights organization Alliance Defending Freedom filed suit on behalf of an Orthodox Jewish psychologist arguing that the law violated both freedom of speech and free exercise of religion. The city quickly repealed its law. Similar challenges are ongoing in several courts around the nation.

Here in Kentucky, however, relying on the usual scare stories, the cities of Covington and Louisville have recently enacted their own “conversion therapy”  ordinances that explicitly outlaw any “counseling, practice, or treatment” that might assist a person achieve comfort with their biological sex. Perhaps most concerningly, they take direct aim at a broadly defined sweep of counselors which could include many pastors.

Ideology-based censorship has no more place in a confidential counseling room or a pastor’s office than it does in a conversation with a concerned friend over coffee. This ideology-driven censorship ignores the needs, beliefs and desires of individual patients, and endangers those who are desperately in need of clear-eyed support. Pastors and people of faith in Kentucky should not be fooled; the Covington and Louisville ordinances pose a dangerous threat not only to those seeking to support troubled young people in the most caring and helpful way, but also to religious liberty.

Roger G. Brooks serves as senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, where he recently represented Dr. Schwartz in a successful challenge to New York City’s counseling censorship law

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