Liberties Reporting on First Amendment freedoms

Free speech face-off looms in California

First Amendment | Christians prepare for legal battle over controversial bill
by Bonnie Pritchett
Posted 8/28/18, 04:39 pm

Christian counselors are ready to mount a legal defense if a draconian law against “sexual orientation change efforts” passes in the California legislature this week.

State lawmakers have until Friday to vote on all remaining legislation this session before sending approved measures to Gov. Jerry Brown for his signature. Despite national opposition to Assembly Bill 2943, its critics believe the bill will be on the Democratic governor’s desk by week’s end.

Under the guise of “protecting consumers,” the bill would classify select private conversations between counselors and their adult clients as “unfair” and “deceptive” business practices. The bill states that “efforts to change behaviors or gender expressions, or to eliminate or reduce sexual or romantic attractions or feelings toward individuals of the same sex” will be banned under the state’s consumer fraud laws.

Advertising such services will also be verboten. Consumers “harmed” by the practice could sue their counselor. (The Senate withdrew language prohibiting the sale of books and other goods promoting sexual orientation change efforts.)

“This bill is not about therapy. It’s about banning an idea,” said Greg Burt, the California Family Council’s director of capital engagement. Like the 2015 law compelling pro-life pregnancy centers to promote the state’s pro-abortion message, AB 2943 demands that professionals convey only one message. But the U.S. Supreme Court recently overturned that law in NIFLA v. Becerra, giving critics of AB 2943 hope they can get it reversed, too, if it becomes law.

In its NIFLA ruling, the high court refuted California’s claim that “professional speech”— speech by licensed individuals or professionals—did not warrant vigorous First Amendment protection.

“This Court has not recognized ‘professional speech’ as a separate category of speech,” the Supreme Court said. “Speech is not unprotected merely because it is uttered by ‘professionals.’”

The court warned that regulating professional speech could give the government the power to “suppress unpopular ideas or information.”

The Pacific Justice Institute sued the state over its 2012 ban on “conversion therapy” for minors but lost. PJI President Brad Dacus told me the organization is prepared to do likewise if AB 2943 becomes law. Legal groups Liberty Counsel and Alliance Defending Freedom have also protested the bill and issued briefs challenging its constitutionality.

Under the proposed law, counselors would be free to “provide acceptance, support, and understanding of clients” in their “identity exploration and development, including sexual orientation–neutral interventions to prevent or address unlawful conduct or unsafe sexual practices or to otherwise promote healthy sexual and romantic relationships,” the bill states. And, above all else, “do not seek to change sexual orientation.”

The idea that people can change their sexual attraction or establish their identity in something other then their sexual orientation is anathema to the bill’s supporters and its author, Assemblyman Evan Low, an openly homosexual Democrat.

In Senate debate on Aug. 16, Democratic Sen. Ricardo Lara, who also is gay, equated so-called conversion therapy with the torture death this year of an 8-year-old boy by his mother’s boyfriend, who thought the boy was gay.

“There is not a practice out there that can change who me and my colleagues love,” Lara said. “It is a matter of fact.”

And therein lies the worldview paradigm that puts Christian counselors at odds with secular views on human behavior, said Debbie Steele, a licensed marriage and family therapist and professor of Christian counseling at Gateway Seminary in Ontario, Calif. She said it should be up to clients, not legislators, to decide if they want help affirming God’s design for sexuality in their lives.

“People don’t come to us until they want to change,” Steele said. “They’re asking us, ‘I need help.’ So this law is prohibiting people who want help from getting any kind of help.”

Editor’s note: For an update, see “California lawmaker pulls controversial ‘conversion therapy’ bill.”

Facebook Facebook Representatives of Catholic Charities of Buffalo

Another religious adoption agency to close

In an abrupt move, Catholic Charities of Buffalo, N.Y., announced last week it would close its foster and adoption care agency early next year, citing an inability to conform to state regulations and uphold its religious convictions about marriage.

The organization will phase out its services until its contract with the Erie County Department of Social Services expires in March 2019. Catholic Charities reportedly made the decision after a lesbian couple applied for certification as foster and adoptive parents.

Catholic teaching recognizes marriage only as the union of one man and one woman, a position at odds with New York’s sexual orientation nondiscrimination act.

The 34 foster children currently living with 24 parents contracted with Catholic Charities will stay in those homes. Going forward, the families will have to contract with another child welfare agency. County Executive Mark Poloncarz, who supports the lesbian couple, said he would appeal to Bishop Richard Malone of the Diocese of Buffalo to compromise his beliefs and reverse the decision and work with same-sex couples. Poloncarz cited what he considered Pope Francis’ pro-gay stance.

The Buffalo agency followed other Catholic Charities branches that have closed in the face of antidiscrimination conflicts. Catholic Charities of Boston stopped providing adoption services in 2006, and Catholic Charities’ organizations across the state of Illinois followed in 2011. Other Catholic Charities branches have sued for their right to operate according to their faith. —B.P.

Associated Press/Photo by Eric Gay Associated Press/Photo by Eric Gay Cody Wilson with a 3D-printed gun

Judge renews ban on 3D-printed gun code

Cody Wilson’s First Amendment right to publish computer code for 3D-printed firearm parts “is currently abridged, but it has not been abrogated,” U.S. District Judge Robert Lasnik said when issuing a preliminary injunction Monday. Lasnik’s decision, which followed a temporary restraining order he put in place last month, bars the application of a settlement made with Wilson’s Defense Distributed, the Second Amendment Foundation, and the U.S. Department of State while a lawsuit on the matter moves forward.

Wilson fired off a terse Tweet in response: “FARCE.”

Nineteen states filed a lawsuit July 30 to halt a settlement in which the State Department allowed Wilson to publish the code. The department acted in an “arbitrary and capricious manner,” failed to follow procedures, and gave no explanation for its “dramatic change of position” about national security concerns related to publishing the codes, the lawsuit alleged.

Wilson maintains, and legal precedent concurs, that computer code is protected speech. But the State Department settlement, not Wilson, is on trial, and its attorneys did not make a free speech defense.

“Because this involves publishing information about guns, suddenly the First Amendment is being treated differently because the Second Amendment is somehow involved,” Alan Gottlieb, founder of the Second Amendment Foundation, told me.

A trial date for the lawsuit has not been set. —B.P.

Ten Commandments takedown

The Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) successfully pressured an Ohio town to remove the Ten Commandments from a public park this month.

The Steubenville, Ohio, City Council opened its Aug. 14 meeting in prayer. Moments later, City Manager James Mavromatis urged the council to remove a small Ten Commandments plaque from a city park. The FFRF had sent him a letter on Aug. 10 threatening heavy financial obligations if the city did not remove the plaque. The council quickly agreed.

It wasn’t the first time the FFRF targeted Steubenville, a town on the western shores of the Ohio River.

Six years ago, the Wisconsin-based organization sent a similar warning to Mayor Domenick Mucci and the Steubenville City Council. The letter argued that the proposed logo, a silhouette of the city’s skyline that included the Franciscan University of Steubenville and its “Latin cross,” constituted an unconstitutional endorsement of Christianity.

FFRF peppers the nation with letters threatening legal action against entities that can least afford it, like small taxpayer funded cities and schools. Those that fight for their freedom of speech, like the city of Bloomfield, N.M., are left holding the bill for legal fees when the U.S. Supreme Court refuses to hear their plea. The American Civil Liberties Union filed the lawsuit against Bloomfield, but the FFRF cited the case and the city’s $700,000 legal tab in the letter to Steubenville.

Contrary to FFRF’s claims, the constitutionality of government display or sponsorship of religious symbols is not settled law. The U.S. Supreme Court is at odds with itself on the issue. Steubenville council members would do well to educate themselves on their rights before acting on FFRF threats that could leave the city without a prayer. —B.P.

Illegal highs, spiritual lows

A marijuana-fueled organization claiming to be a church ran up against the limits of religious freedom this month.

The city of Jurupa Valley, Calif., can legally shut down The Vault Church of Open Faith, according to an Aug. 15 ruling. Riverside County Superior Court Judge Sunshine Sykes declared the enterprise an illegal pot dispensary. The city has not yet acted on the ruling.

When California legalized medical and recreational marijuana use in 1996 and 2018, respectively, pot dispensaries cropped up throughout the state. Following the law, Jurupa Valley banned pot sales within town limits and, in 2017, filed a lawsuit asking the court to declare The Vault an illegal dispensary.

Then The Vault operators got religion.

Days after recreational marijuana went on sale in January, The Vault became a state-registered church and declared marijuana its holy sacrament.

But it was the church’s price lists, complete with veteran and senior discounts, that tipped city officials to the suspicious nature of their allegedly religious practice.

In an effort to dodge municipal laws against the sale of marijuana, dispensaries across the state had a collective epiphany and rebranded themselves as churches. For a “tithe,” congregants can partake of various marijuana products. Local and state authorities are cracking down on the suspect sacrament. —B.P.

Charges dropped against Army chaplain

A chaplain who declined to teach at a marriage conference that would have included a homosexual couple won his case this month.

U.S. Army officials rejected dereliction of duty charges levied against Chaplain Jerry Scott Squires on Friday. Squires faced possible court martial for unlawful discrimination after he deferred leadership of the marriage conference to another chaplain because a married lesbian couple registered for the event.

Kacie Griffin, Squires’ assistant, was also cleared of wrongdoing.

The original investigation was fraught with anti-religious bias, Squires’ attorneys with First Liberty said. Squires’ endorsing agency, the North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, prohibits their chaplains from participating in activities that affirm homosexual relationships, and the Department of Defense requires chaplains follow their agencies’ faith tenets.

Prayerful support for Squires crossed denominational lines, said Gen. Douglas Carver, NAMB executive director of chaplaincy, which commissions more than 1,600 Southern Baptist military chaplains.

“We are here to ensure that our chaplains can exercise their religious freedom and model the tenets of our faith as Southern Baptists in an uncompromising and Christ-honoring manner," Carver said. —B.P.

Bonnie Pritchett

Bonnie reports on First Amendment freedoms for WORLD Digital.

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