TRENTON, N.J. – New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie signed a bill into law Aug. 19 that bans state-licensed counselors from trying to help children under 18 reduce or eliminate same-sex attraction, a practice known as reparative or conversion therapy.
Southern Baptist ethicist Russell D. Moore called Christie’s action “disappointing” and said it threatens religious liberty.
“This really isn’t about reparative therapy, but about religious liberty and personal freedom,” Moore, president of the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said.
Moore said the bill is “broadly and haphazardly written in a way that endangers, among other things, the teenager who seeks counsel for how to live a chaste life with same-sex attractions. His counselor, upon threat of losing a license, can only parrot the state-approved line rather than dealing with him or her as an individual.
“I like Chris Christie and admire much about him,” Moore said, “but this is a disappointing move.”
The bill prohibits any licensed therapist, psychologist, social worker “or a person who performs counseling as part of the person’s professional training for any of these professions” from trying to change the sexual orientation of anyone under 18 years old. The legislation does not apply to clergy or counselors not licensed by the state, but licensed offenders risk losing their licenses.
Prohibited therapy techniques include “efforts to change behaviors, gender identity, or gender expressions, or to reduce or eliminate sexual or romantic attractions or feelings toward a person of the same gender,” according to the bill.
Christie, a Republican, said in a statement that he has “concerns about government limiting parental choice on the care and treatment of their own children.” But he said he signed the bill based on research by the American Psychological Association that conversion therapy can lead to “depression, substance abuse, social withdrawal, decreased self-esteem and suicidal thoughts.”
“I believe that exposing children to these health risks without clear evidence of benefits that outweigh these serious risks is not appropriate,” Christie said. “Based upon this analysis, I sign this bill into law.”
Liberty Counsel, a Christian legal group, said it will sue to overturn the law and argued that medical research is not as conclusive as Christie suggests.
“Gov. Christie has reportedly said that he is siding with the ‘experts,’ referring to the American Psychological Association’s 2009 Task Force Report cited by the legislature in support of the law,” Liberty Counsel said in a news release. “But that Task Force Report specifically states that there is evidence of benefit of such counseling, and any such reports to the contrary were only anecdotal. The Report also states that there is no research – none – regarding the effects of change therapy involving minors.”
Liberty Counsel founder and chairman Mat Staver said Christie “is putting himself in every counseling room, dictating what kind of counseling clients can receive. This bill provides a slippery slope of government infringing upon the First Amendment rights of counselors to provide, and patients to receive, counseling consistent with their religious beliefs.”
Denny Burk, associate professor of biblical studies at Boyce College in Louisville, Ky., called the bill “Chris Christie’s broadside against religious liberty.”
“The law … means that licensed service providers who also happen to be Christian will have to choose,” Burk wrote in a blog post at DennyBurk.com. “They can either abandon Christian teaching or they can abandon their profession. The law now prohibits them from doing both. You just watch. Any counselor or therapist who tries to buck the system on this one will lose their credentials from the state. There will be no religious liberty exception.”
California passed a similar law last fall banning conversion therapy for minors. The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals blocked the law from taking effect until it could hear arguments on the measure’s constitutionality. Oral arguments occurred in April, with a ruling expected this year. Liberty Counsel represents reparative therapy practitioners and recipients in the case.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – David Roach is a writer in Shelbyville, Ky.)