Your Turn: Therapy ordinance must protect religious speech

An open letter to the Lawrence City Commission:

Regarding the current proposal to ban the use of “conversion therapy” for LGBTQ minors in Lawrence, I’d like to add another faith-based perspective to the discussion.

First, I want to commend the city for considering such a proposal and wish to express my personal support on banning this type of therapeutic approach by professionals working with minors in a counseling environment. The specific techniques associated with “conversion therapy” are not only ineffective, but are verifiably harmful and ought to not be utilized. It is also my perspective that such practices are often rooted in a type of biblical interpretation and theological application that, though honestly well meaning, is spiritually devastating to many who are exposed to it.

Second, I’d like to express my concern over expanding such a ban to include members of the clergy unless the ordinance includes much more detailed language listing specific types of therapeutic practices to be banned across the board. Without such language, major First Amendment issues will undoubtedly be raised for clergy of all faith traditions. Banning specific actions/practices is wise and necessary; writing a ban without the necessary specificity to ensure the freedom of religious speech is not.

I am not a lawyer, nor am I a constitutional expert, so I would be happy to admit I am wrong in this regard, but I believe expanding this type of ban to members of the clergy — as the ordinance is currently worded — would almost certainly create more ancillary problems than it rightly seeks to prevent.

As has been suggested elsewhere, wisdom dictates drawing on the American Medical Association website to include language that is as specific as possible, with exact details on the techniques being banned (e.g., aversive conditioning, electric shock, deprivation of food and liquids, smelling salts and chemically induced nausea, etc.)

I agree with City Commissioner Jennifer Ananda’s assessment: It is deeply problematic for clergy to engage in unlicensed practice of therapeutic services. As a pastor, I am trained in hermeneutics and theology; I am qualified to share wisdom and insight from a Christian perspective; I am not trained as a professional counselor, nor am I trained in the appropriate use of psychological/therapeutic techniques, and it is unwise, unprofessional and potentially unsafe to present myself as otherwise.

As clergy not licensed in medical or mental health practice, we should refer parishioners facing such medically and psychologically complex issues to trained, licensed professionals. When asked to give our input, however, we must also be free to share our honest theological perspective (particularly, in this case, around issues of gender, sexuality, sexual ethics, etc.) from within the broad spectrum of our religious tradition without fear of legal reprisal for doing so, regardless of how “conservative” or “progressive” that perspective may be.

The ultimate goal here is to protect the hearts, minds, bodies and lives of minors who are seeking counseling. Enacting a ban on specific, harmful conversion therapy techniques will certainly help in that direction. Writing an ordinance without such detailed language will ultimately serve to distract from that worthy aim.

— Deacon Godsey is lead pastor at Vintage Church in Lawrence.

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