Can the states legally ban "gay conversion" therapy?

Some pastors in Illinois are challenging a state law which bans gay conversion therapy on a variety of grounds. You can’t have a lawsuit which touches on the muddled set of topics included here without trigger a storm, so we can expect some fireworks and protests to surround it all the way through. (WaPo)

A group of Illinois pastors filed suit against the state Thursday alleging clergy — because it violates their constitutional right to free speech and exercise of religion — should be exempt from a law banning counselors from trying to change a minor’s sexual orientation.

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.”

I almost feel sorry for the court that has to hear this case because the question before them is such a hot mess in terms of the legalities, not to mention the social issues. I think when the law was originally passed, legislators were under the impression that they were in the clear on the religious freedom front by excluding church leaders from prosecution. But the suit raises a bizarre question as to whether or not they could still be taken down on the grounds of consumer protection in terms of offering a fraudulent service.

Seriously? I suppose if there’s some church which is literally charging by the hour for these “services” as opposed to providing counseling to the flock there might be an issue to haggle over but that sounds awfully unlikely. Do many churches regularly engage in by-the-hour billing for therapy in the same fashion as a psychologist? If so, I’m unaware of it.

The larger question here is whether or not anyone should be able to offer such “conversion therapy” even outside of a church setting. Personally (and I say this from a layman’s perspective with no experience in that field of medicine), I find such efforts to be pointless from a medical perspective because I don’t think being gay is an attribute that you can just change. Part of me thinks that it almost has to be genetic given the ever increasing body of science in genetics and how much we’ve been learning about the way our genes program things into our distinct personalities. But by the same token, I used to frequently wonder how a genetic trait which would seem to be designed to prevent procreation could survive over the long evolutionary haul. As I said… that question is way out of my depth.

But what about people who really want to change, despite any potential medical evidence to the contrary? People work toward changes in themselves all the time and frequently seek out either professional or clerical help to do so. Maybe you’re having trouble quitting smoking or losing weight. Perhaps you’re too shy and want to be more outgoing. Afraid of flying? See a therapist. Yes, you could argue that some of those things are “choices” and being gay isn’t, but others are “choices” we never actually made. (See the fear of flying or just being shy.) But now we’re talking about things which tend to be classified as disorders in their extreme forms and we’re back to the issue of labeling homosexuality as a medical disorder.

See what I mean about the lawsuit being a hot mess?

To finish up by getting back to the case at hand, I think the pastors will need to be able to show actual damages to establish their standing to challenge the law in the first place. Thus far it sounds like they’re dealing in hypotheticals. Until someone comes in and successfully sues one of them for breach of contract for failing to “cure” their gayness, this one may hit the rocks pretty quickly.