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FIRST-PERSON: New Jersey & the Imago Dei

NASHVILLE (BP) — The practice of reparative therapy, or what’s also called “gay conversion therapy,” has long stirred conflicting viewpoints about whether changing one’s sexual desire is possible or whether such attempts are in the best interest of same-sex-attracted individuals.

Differences aside, there are legitimate concerns about the bill Gov. Christie now has signed to ban reparative therapy in New Jersey. The implications for religious liberty are sufficiently problematic on their own to warrant Christian concern.

The bill states that licensed mental health professionals “shall not engage in sexual orientation change efforts with a person under 18 years of age.”

It defines sexual orientation change efforts as “the practice of seeking to change a person’s sexual persuasion, including, but not limited to, efforts to change behaviors or gender expressions, or to reduce or eliminate sexual or romantic attractions or feelings toward a person of the same gender.” Gov. Christie’s signing of the bill Aug. 19 follows an equivalent bill passed in California in 2012 that is now stalled in the courts.

Consider these scenarios:

— If a licensed social worker in New Jersey is a Christian, does his or her personal belief that homosexuality is sinful (apart from whether she engages in reparative therapy) put his or her licensure and accreditation in jeopardy?

— If a licensed psychologist is a Christian and offers free counseling services within the context of his or her church, can he or she counsel a Christian teen with unwanted same-sex attraction? Can the psychologist insist that, while altering one’s orientation is uncertain, that the appropriate Christian response for unwanted or wanted same-sex attraction is sexual chastity? Is the psychologist free to do so, or does his or her state licensure prevent him or her from exercising a sincerely held religious belief?

— Can a 14-year-old boy with unwanted same-sex attraction seek assistance on how to quell sexual temptation or can he only be told by professionals to embrace his same-sex attraction?

As written, the bill’s text poses several uncertainties like these. What’s for certain is that a child, Christian or non-Christian, with unwanted same-sex attraction is forbidden from receiving help from licensed professionals. Additionally, children with confused gender identities are prohibited from receiving attention.

Concerned parents and confused children are left powerless before a law that elevates desire above conscience.

Even beyond the religious liberty concerns, there are reasons for concern about the state entering the sphere of desire and attraction.

In this instance, the state is speaking authoritatively over human biology and making it subordinate to human ideology. This ought to cause Christians to pause and reflect. When the state can speak authoritatively on whether a person’s desires are to be kept, shunned or celebrated, the state is speaking with an authority it does not possess. It is neither the job nor the role of the state to speak to the entirety of the human self — an action in this particular circumstance that enfeebles the capacity for self-determination.

The law’s power grab is purposed under the pretense of compassion and child protection. But it is a power that is not legitimate when the state gives tacit blessing to any imaginable desire that is advanced by whatever lobby supports it. What the bill counsels is that behavior and desire are beyond the pale of question and reconsideration.

In the Scriptures, we are told to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and we do so happily and dutifully with our taxes, driver’s license fees and even our draft cards. But the responsibility to render what is rightly Caesar’s also requires us not to render unto Caesar what belongs to God — the Imago Dei.
Andrew T. Walker is director of policy studies for the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (www.erlc.com) of the Southern Baptist Convention.

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  • Andrew T. Walker