A group of Illinois pastors filed suit against the state Thursday, arguing that clergy should be exempt from a law banning counselors from trying to change a minor’s sexual orientation because it violates their constitutional right to free speech and exercise of religion.
The law, which went into effect in January, bans licensed counselors and mental health professionals from practicing “conversion therapy” — counseling designed to make gay, lesbian, bisexual or queer people become straight — on minors. While religious leaders don’t fall under this category, the suit says pastors could be held liable for consumer fraud under a section of the law that says “no person or entity” may advertise or practice conversion therapy that “represents homosexuality as a mental disease, disorder or illness.”
And that’s exactly what the five Christian pastors think, according to their lawsuit filed in federal court.
“These pastors teach that homosexual conduct is contrary to God’s purpose for humanity and a disorder of God’s creation which can be resisted or overcome by those who seek to be faithful to God and His Word. This is what they say to those who seek their counsel — including minors,” according to the lawsuit, posted online by the law firm representing the pastors.
The pastors don’t want to dismantle the entire law — they just want an exemption for religious counselors. The suit says the law unfairly prohibits clergy from helping people who come to them genuinely wanting to change their sexual orientation and behaviors.
“This law undermines the dignity and integrity of those who choose a different path for their lives than politicians and activists prefer,” the pastors’ attorney, John Mauck, said in a news release. “Each person should be free to receive Biblical and spiritual counseling from the pastor of their choice to help them orient their sexuality.”
The Illinois Attorney General’s Office, which will represent the state in the case, had no comment on the lawsuit Thursday evening because it had not received the lawsuit yet, according to the Associated Press.
Equality Illinois, an organization that lobbies for LGBT rights, condemned the lawsuit Thursday and said it is an attempt to set back the movement for LGBT inclusion.
“The law protects patients from harmful, coercive, and fraudulent treatments that attempt to change the unchangeable,” the organization’s chief executive, Brian Johnson, said in a news release. “Faith leaders remain free to say what they want from the pulpit, regardless of how misguided it may be, and the law and the state and federal Constitutions protect that right. That was not changed by this law.”
Four other states — California, New Jersey, Oregon and Vermont — and the District of Columbia have passed similar laws, but Mauck told the Associated Press that Illinois’ is the most broad and is the only to affect clergy. Dozens of other states have introduced similar bills, but have not passed them. Even President Obama condemned conversion therapy after a 17-year-old transgender teen who underwent such therapies killed herself in 2014.
The teen, Leelah Alcorn, wrote of her experience with conversion therapy on Reddit a month before her death.
“The[y] would only let me see biased Christian therapists, who instead of listening to my feelings would try to change me into a straight male who loved God, and I would cry after every session because I felt like it was hopeless and there was no way I would ever become a girl,” she wrote.
For years, conversion therapy (also known as “reparative therapy”) has been widely condemned as ineffective and dangerous by a variety of health-care professional organizations, including the American Psychological Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the National Association of Social Workers. When the Illinois bill was proposed in 2015, a dozen state mental health associations, academic institutions and hospitals sent a letter in its support.
“The idea that homosexuality is a mental disorder or that the emergence of same-sex attraction and orientation among some adolescents is in any way abnormal or mentally unhealthy has no support among any mainstream health and mental health professional organizations,” according to the American Psychological Association.
The text of the Illinois law echoes that idea. It reads,”Being lesbian, gay, or bisexual is not a disease, disorder, illness, deficiency, or shortcoming.”
Yet one of the pastor-plaintiffs says he has personally seen how effective the therapy can be.
“I have personally witnessed many people change their sexual orientation through counseling and know it is possible,” Pastor Steven Stultz of Nu-Church Apostolic Ministries in Chicago said in a news release, citing a Bible verse. “The government is interfering into someone’s private decisions. This ban on counseling creates fear in the people most in need of comfort and support.”
On his church’s website, homosexuality is listed as part of Satan’s strategy to “spoil” younger generations so that “their lives are tainted and they are of no use to the Lord.”