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Proposed conversion therapy ban really isn’t about conversion therapy, critics say

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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. (BP) – Evangelical leaders say the ambiguous terminology in a city council proposal to ban so-called conversion therapy will implicate counseling centers, churches and even parents wanting to operate and live according to Scripture.

The title of Ordinance 31-21, first proposed last month, reads that it will “[prohibit] the practice of conversion therapy and [discourage] its use by licensed professionals” among minors. Further into the proposal, however, that mandate is extended to “unlicensed persons providing counseling and/or psychotherapy, especially conversion therapy to minors.”

Conversion therapy is later defined as “any practices or treatments that seek to change an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity, including efforts to change gender expressions or to eliminate or reduce sexual or romantic attractions or feelings toward individuals of the same gender.”

In the Jan. 19 edition of The Briefing, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Albert Mohler said he proposal was more about a threat to religious freedom than protecting minors.

“What becomes very clear here is that this ordinance … is directly intended to shut down biblical counseling,” he said, adding that since counseling through a church is considered a ministry, no state licensure is required.

In a broader scope, leaders say the language opens the door for any individual or group to be fined $1,000 a day for holding to an orthodox biblical sexual ethic should a minor with same-sex attraction or gender dysphoria approach them for advice or direction.

“Parents, pastors and Christian counselors consult their Bible on a daily basis to answer questions posed by children living in a confusing and chaotic world. And in this current culture, questions of sexual orientation and gender identity are often at the center of those matters,” said Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission Acting President Brent Leatherwood. “Yet, this proposed ordinance could criminalize instances such as these with its current sweeping language.”

In response, a collection of churches, campus groups and others have formed the Lafayette Citizens for Freedom. A list of questions to city council members from the organization began by asking the members to identify who in the area was practicing conversion therapy. The lack of responses (only one of nine council members submitted one) equals a lack of transparency, a prominent local pastor said.

“The city council should specifically state who is practicing so-called conversion therapy in our community,” wrote Steve Viars, pastor of Faith Church. “They should explain exactly what these counselors are saying and doing that concerns them.”

Faith Church is an independent Baptist congregation in West Lafayette that has provided free biblical counseling in the area since 1977. The concerns expressed by Viars match those of Southern Baptists in the city and throughout the state, Indiana Baptists’ state director told Baptist Press.

“This proposed ordinance’s broad definitions put pastors, biblical counselors and even parents at risk,” said Ryan Strother, who was named executive director for the State Convention of Baptists of Indiana last September. “It should be opposed. God has given us the truth and has a perfect design for all things, so it is loving to lead people to His truth. Churches and ministries have the opportunity to respond to this proposed ordinance with this kind of bold, Gospel witness.”

Strother gave his remarks while attending the Midwest Leadership Summit, a gathering of Southern Baptist leaders. Josh Hershberger, another attendee who is also a pastor and lawyer, agreed that the West Lafayette proposal appears to be more about clamping down on religious freedom.

The current discussion over conversion therapy is often paired with the history of reparative therapy. Accounts and testimonies of reparative therapy in the 1960s and ‘70s include electroshock and viewing heterosexual pornography, practices that have long since been denounced by the evangelical community. Instead, a message of finding one’s identity in Christ while holding to a biblical sexual ethic has become prominent.

Hershberger pointed to the obfuscation in terminology, plus inclusion of “unlicensed” counselors in the ordinance, as a cause for concern.

“The key distinction between this conversion therapy ban and a number of them across the country is that most … focus on the licensed professionals,” he said. “… However, the concern with this ordinance is it applies to unlicensed individuals and then prohibits anyone from participating in ‘conversion therapy.’

“The problem is that ‘conversion therapy’ is defined so broadly that it could include a pastor, student pastor or even a parent speaking to a minor about the biblical sexual ethic.”

Hershberger, who speaks more in-depth on the situation in a YouTube video, serves as teaching pastor at Cornerstone Baptist Church, an independent Baptist congregation in southeast Indiana as well as general counsel and director of The Daniel Initiative of the Indiana Family Institute. The group’s religious liberty efforts and affiliation with Focus on the Family have placed it alongside Southern Baptist churches as well as working closely with the Alliance Defending Freedom.

Earlier this month, a Canadian law banning conversion therapy brought a prison sentence of up to five years for violators. The West Lafayette ordinance will be presented a second time at the council’s Feb. 7 meeting.

“Though the Christian view of God’s design for men and women, and their sexual flourishing, is increasingly unpopular in our indulgent culture, that does not give the government the authority to insert itself into these relationships,” Leatherwood said. “We can all agree the state has a responsibility to protect individuals – in fact, Christians are often the leading voices for this. But that is a far cry from supplanting a parent’s biblical teaching with culture’s ever-changing definition of sexuality, which is the path this ordinance would take.”