A group of pastors is suing over a law that bars therapists and counselors from trying to change a minor’s sexual orientation, saying in a filing Aug. 11 that the prohibition violates free speech and religious rights.
The federal lawsuit seeks to exclude clergy from the ban that took effect Jan. 1, arguing that homosexuality is “contrary to God’s purpose” and a disorder that “can be resisted or overcome by those who seek to be faithful to God and His word.”
Illinois is among five states with bans on so-called gay conversion therapy for youth under 18, a practice critics have decried as psychologically damaging. The laws in California and New Jersey have withstood legal challenges, but an attorney for the pastors said the prohibitions in those states did not include clergy.
“The law in Illinois is broader than the other laws, which were aimed at licensed counselors,” said John Mauck, who added that his plaintiffs are not seeking to overturn the entire ban, but want a ruling stating it shouldn’t apply to clergy.
Vermont and Oregon are the other states with bans, and President Barack Obama expressed support for such laws last year.
The Illinois Attorney General’s office, which will handle the lawsuit on behalf of the state, had not received the lawsuit yet and couldn’t comment, spokeswoman Annie Thompson said.
Illinois’ law applies to therapists and other licensed counselors, but the portion of the law that concerns pastors makes anyone liable for consumer fraud if they practice or advertise conversion therapy that portrays homosexuality as a mental disorder.
“We want to make sure that young people in particular have access to pastoral and Biblical-based counsel if they want it, and that pastors are able to provide Bible-based counseling without any fear of legal repercussions,” said Steven Stultz, a Chicago pastor who is part of the lawsuit. Four other pastors are also involved, as well as Pastors Protecting Youth and Civil Liberties for Urban Believers.
Rep. Kelly Cassidy, a Chicago Democrat who sponsored the bill, said she’s met with people who have gone through conversion therapy and they tell stories of feeling suicidal, humiliated and alienated from their families.
“This is torture, this is abuse. We can’t sanction that,” she said.
Cassidy’s bill quoted language from the American Psychiatric Association warning in 2000 that “the potential risks of reparative therapy are great, including depression, anxiety and self-destructive behavior, since therapist alignment with societal prejudices against homosexuality may reinforce self-hatred already experienced by the patient.”
But Stultz said the young parishioners who have sought his counsel have had positive experiences.
“I think we’ve been able to do it in such a way that doesn’t bring condemnation, doesn’t bring pressure,” he said.