Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law last week banning California parents from subjecting children with homosexual feelings to reparative therapy — or, as it is more colloquially known, “praying away the gay.” In response, critics have taken up arms against the ban, calling it an infringement on religious liberties.
Despite the fundamental importance of religious freedom in a democracy such as the United States, to claim that reparative therapy falls under our First Amendment right clouds the true nature of individual liberties in America. As tolerant individuals, we as Americans must identify the clear distinction between freely practicing one’s religion and forcing damaging practices on others under the guise of religious freedom.
Reparative therapy is a sham of a treatment touted by proponents as a “cure” for homosexuality. In many therapy sessions, a religious leader aims to invoke the power of God to squelch the recipient’s physical attraction to people of the same sex. Other, less religious therapists use sessions to attempt to pinpoint the source of homosexuality in individuals and to help them past this “trauma.”
The bill in question that Brown signed into law, Senate Bill 1172, will take effect Jan. 1 and does not outlaw reparative therapy specifically, but instead bans practitioners from working with unwilling minors to change their sexuality. The governor’s hope, as he declared when signing the bill into law, is that SB 1172 will help push the practice toward the “dustbin of quackery,” but proponents of reparative therapy are fiercely pushing back against what they incorrectly label as an abridgement of religious freedom.
David Pickup, a spokesman for the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality, is just one of many people filing lawsuits against the state in an effort to repeal the law. He calls the new legislation “the height of political and therapeutic irresponsibility.” But the bill merely prohibits parents and guardians from forcibly subjecting their children to a practice that has been shown to be damaging to impressionable minors.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, reparative therapy amplifies depression and anxiety disorders and increases the risk of suicidal behavior in individuals undergoing the treatment. Such evidence clearly displays the potential dangers of this practice, especially for those who do not undergo “treatment” completely of their own volition. Though the government should not prevent consenting adults from reparative therapy, it does have a responsibility to protect children from practices that might prove harmful to them.
Those who argue that the legislation is an attack on the First Amendment are missing the point of religious liberties and individual rights. These constitutional provisions exist not to allow adults to subject children to such misguided practices as reparative therapy, but to protect all individuals from arbitrary exercises of state power that seek to prevent them from practicing their religion.
Sending one’s child to “pray away the gay” does not count as practicing religion. The bill does not prevent speech against homosexuality, nor does it bar individuals from prayer or free worship. It merely serves as a necessary ban on something that can be incredibly detrimental to a child’s long-term mental health and personal well-being.
The flurry of lawsuits against the state in response to the bill is to be expected and is a function of the First Amendment right to free speech. The outcomes of these cases, though, must serve to firmly communicate what religious liberty really entails.
Nobody, including bigots who mask their intolerance with claims of piety, should be able to force their prejudices upon children. Brown’s action is a positive step toward protecting children from what could be called emotional abuse, not an attack on religious freedom.
We must always staunchly defend the freedom to practice one’s own religion without interference from the state, as it remains absolutely vital to any liberal democracy. But that right does not extend to people who aim to influence the freedom of minors through questionable therapy.
And though Brown took the first step, the way to truly do away with reparative therapy is to generate conversation and awareness about the topic, and for Americans everywhere to defend the line between true religious freedom and abuse of a First Amendment right.
Sarah Cueva is a junior majoring in political science and Middle East studies. Her column “Leaning Toward Liberty” runs Mondays.