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New laws—and a potential federal ban—against reparative therapy are causing more confusion than remedy for those struggling with sexual identity


(Photo illustration by Numbeos/iStock)

Marilynn K. Yee/Genesis

Tara King at her office in Brick, N.J.

From an office in Brick, N.J., therapist Tara King counsels clients struggling with addictions, abusive pasts, broken relationships, and occasionally those dealing with same-sex attractions.

For 15 years, King—a former lesbian—has told clients about how her relationship with Christ transformed her life and helped her leave a homosexual lifestyle. She says she doesn’t promise clients their attractions will change, but she tells them changes are possible.

Now there’s an exception: She can’t offer that counsel to minors.

In 2013, Republican Gov. Chris Christie signed a New Jersey law prohibiting state-licensed counselors from engaging in “sexual orientation change efforts” with minors. California lawmakers passed a nearly identical bill in 2012. (The District of Columbia passed a ban in 2014.)

Proponents of the laws—and many media outlets—narrowly characterize the legislation as a ban on a type of counseling known as reparative or conversion therapy and claim such therapy is harmful to minors. But the bans are much broader.

In both New Jersey and California, the legislation says state-licensed therapists can’t talk with minors about changing their sexual orientation, but also prohibit discussions about changing behavior or pursuing efforts “to reduce or eliminate sexual or romantic attractions or feelings toward a person of the same gender.”

That means the laws don’t affect just one type of therapy: They include any counseling that suggests it’s possible for a person to change—or even reduce—same-sex attractions.

For Christian counselors licensed by either state, the directive is clear: The laws prohibit them from talking with minors about resisting same-sex attractions, including any biblical encouragement to pursue repentance and faith in Christ.

At least 18 other states have considered similar bans on therapy for minors, but many of the bills have died in legislative committees. Colorado lawmakers rejected a ban in April.

Still, on April 8, the Obama administration announced its approval of state bans and said it would support federal legislation if Congress acts. It’s unclear whether the White House support will revive state efforts—or lead to a national push—but Oregon's House of Representatives passed a version in March, and the state's Senate will consider the bill this spring.

The Christian legal firm Liberty Counsel is appealing the New Jersey ban to the U.S. Supreme Court and expects the justices to decide in early May whether they will accept the case. King, the New Jersey therapist, is a plaintiff. 

Although the ban doesn’t include pastors or Christian counselors who don’t pursue state licensure, it’s still alarming, says Mat Staver of Liberty Counsel: “I think it’s a very dangerous position for the government to say it knows best what kind of counseling someone should receive.”

The New Jersey ban does make a striking caveat: It doesn’t include counseling for a minor seeking to transition from one gender to another. Similarly in California, the ban doesn’t apply to therapies that affirm a minor’s sexual orientation.

That means in both states, licensed therapists may talk with minors about changing their bodies if they want to be another gender, but not about changing their feelings if they don’t want same-sex attractions.

While states do have power to regulate standards for licensure, Staver says he’s not aware of other cases where state lawmakers specifically tell counselors what they can and can’t say: “And it’s unprecedented that they’re telling the client they can only get one viewpoint.”

For King, a member of the American Association of Christian Counselors, the New Jersey ban means she now turns away some clients. She says a worried mother recently called and said she discovered her 16-year-old son watching male pornography. Could King help? King spoke with the mother, but says, “I had to tell her: ‘I can’t see your son.’”

IT’S CHILLING to consider just who will see troubled children.

In California, where the Pacific Justice Institute is challenging the talk therapy ban now in effect, business is open at the transgender clinic at the Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.

The hospital reports that since 2011, the clinic has accepted over 100 new youth “seeking information or medical intervention to assist in their transition process to bring their physical bodies into closer alignment with their internal gender identity.”

Norman Spack pioneered the practice of puberty-blocking drugs given to minors (usually at age 11 or 12) in his work as head of the Gender Management Service clinic at Boston Children’s Hospital. In 2012, Spack authored a report on 97 children who visited the clinic between 1998 and 2010. The youngest was 4 years old.

The Endocrine Society, a hormone research organization, endorses the use of puberty-blocking drugs, and then allowing youth to begin taking lifelong, sex-changing hormones at age 16.

Spack told the Associated Press his clinic has worked with surgeons who performed breast removal surgery on girls at age 16, but said the surgery could be avoided if puberty is halted soon enough.

Paul McHugh, former psychiatrist-in-chief at Johns Hopkins Hospital, warned against such extreme practices in a Wall Street Journal column last year, noting puberty-blocking drugs can stunt a child’s growth and risk causing sterility.

I think it'’s a very dangerous position for the government to say it knows best what kind of counseling someone should receive.—Mat Staver

“Given that close to 80 percent of such children would abandon their confusion and grow naturally into adult life if untreated, these medical interventions come close to child abuse,” McHugh wrote. “A better way to help these children: with devoted parenting.”

EVEN DEVOTED PARENTS need help with struggling children.

It’s worth noting most youth experiencing same-sex attractions don’t want to change genders, and the most devoted parents can’t necessarily prevent a child from developing homosexual desires.

Indeed, while some with same-sex attractions cite broken families in their homosexual inclinations, others say they had loving homes and healthy relationships with their parents. Either way, many parents have sought help for their families through counseling.

In 2009, the American Psychological Association (APA) passed a resolution re-affirming same-sex attraction as “normal and positive” and condemning what it called “sexual orientation change efforts” by therapists and organizations, including faith-based groups:

“Many of these individuals and groups appeared to be embedded within the larger context of conservative religious political movements that have supported the stigmatization of homosexuality on political or religious grounds.”

Supporters of bans on change therapy—including Gov. Christie—have cited the APA resolution in approving the legislation and noted APA evidence stating change therapy had harmed minors.

Much of APA’s reporting has focused on reparative therapy—a specific method focusing on repairing relationships between a client and a parent. (APA notes some therapists have promised clients their sexual orientation will change.)

During legislative hearings on therapy bans, some adults testified such therapy traumatized them as children. Others have reported similar experiences and say they suffered depression and despair. But King notes other clients have found such therapy helpful and says allegations that therapists routinely use abusive practices in therapy sessions aren’t true. (If therapists do use unethical or abusive tactics, King says they should lose their licenses.)

While some therapists, including King, use a mixture of secular and Christian principles in therapy sessions, other therapists use secular methods alone. Many Christian counselors—both licensed and unlicensed—emphasize a distinctly biblical approach in counseling those with same-sex attractions.

Ed Welch of the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation is a state-licensed Christian counselor in neighboring Pennsylvania and says he emphasizes the gospel and Christian discipleship: “I want to surprise the person with the goodness of God as He’s revealed in Jesus. … If God is good, then what He says—His laws—may be hard, but they are good, and point the way to a life that can be satisfied in God.”

Other evangelicals have also noted that focusing on family relationships alone isn’t a distinctly Christian approach. The Atlantic magazine seized on such statements recently to ask: “Why did Christian conservatives turn against gay conversion therapy?”

Even if some Christians don’t endorse reparative therapy, the notion that Bible-believing evangelicals now believe Christians can’t resist homosexual temptation (as any other temptation to sin) with the help of the Holy Spirit betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of basic Christian doctrine.

“In fact, we believe that every Christian is a work in progress,” wrote Denny Burk of Boyce College in response to The Atlantic article. “The Holy Spirit works in every Christian to transform them into the image of Christ.”

ALLAN EDWARDS, pastor of Kiski Valley Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Pennsylvania, recently wrote about his own struggles with unwanted same-sex attraction on the website of the Christian ministry Harvest USA.

Edwards, who grew up in a Christian home, began experiencing same-sex attractions as a teenager and knew they conflicted with his Christian beliefs.

In an email interview, Edwards—now married and expecting a baby with his wife in July—emphasized the importance of relationships in the church in facing any struggle against sin: “The local church has to be the place where sinners work out their salvation—the good, the bad, and the ugly.”

Though Edwards says he is attracted to his wife physically, emotionally, and spiritually, he says he still experiences same-sex attractions, though not in the same way and intensity. The pastor notes Christians are always in the process of resisting temptation: “I think ‘reorientation’ is too small a goal. Loving and living for Christ changes everything about us.”

Jamie Dean

Jamie Dean

Jamie is WORLD’s national editor based in Charlotte, N.C. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.


  • Midwest preacher
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 12:28 pm

    It is, in the end, a decision that a person makes.  One may live for Christ and struggle with attitudes of sin or give in the whatever desires he/she has and just do what you feel.  The world sees sexuality as a wedge issue to separate children from godly parents.  Same sex attraction is particularly valuable for this and has become very special to them.