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California Outlaws Therapies Aimed at Changing the Sexual Orientation of Minors

On Saturday, California became the first state to ban therapy practices that attempt to change the sexual orientation of minors. The new law states,

Under no circumstances shall a mental health provider engage in sexual orientation change efforts with a patient under 18 years of age… Any sexual orientation change efforts attempted on a patient under 18 years of age by a mental health provider shall be considered unprofessional conduct and shall subject a mental health provider to discipline by the licensing entity for that mental health provider.

This means that even if a minor wants help in battling same-sex desires, mental health professionals in California are not allowed to provide it. What is the rationale for this sweeping prohibition? There are at least two reasons cited in the law.

(1) First, the law asserts the normativeness of homosexual orientation and behavior. It says,

Being lesbian, gay, or bisexual is not a disease, disorder, illness, deficiency, or shortcoming. The major professional associations of mental health practitioners and researchers in the United States have recognized this fact for nearly 40 years.

The law states that there is nothing deficient about having homosexual desires or acting out homosexual behavior. So the terms here are irreducibly moral. California is acting out of a moral framework in enacting this law. The assumption is that homosexuality is a normal and healthy expression of human sexuality. It is no surprise then that the law not only forbids efforts to change a minor’s orientation, it also forbids any attempts to alter a minor’s homosexual behavior. What if a minor is homosexual and promiscuous? Can a mental health provider attempt to alter that behavior?

(2) Second, the law states that efforts to change sexual orientation are both futile and harmful to young people. Thus the law says this:

California has a compelling interest in protecting the physical and psychological well-being of minors, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth, and in protecting its minors against exposure to serious harms caused by sexual orientation change efforts.

This section of the law is particularly troubling. Even though this particular law only applies to mental health providers, why stop there? Now California is on the record saying that it has a “compelling interest” in protecting minors from attempts to alter same-sex attraction or behavior. Does that “compelling interest” mean that California would attempt to ban the efforts of other groups to alter sexual orientation? What about churches? What about Christian Schools that counsel against such behavior? What about a family seeking to adopt? I can think of any number of settings in which California might cite its “compelling interest” to protect minors from traditional sexual teaching and discipline. Will California be asserting its “compelling interest” in these areas as well? There is a slippery slope here with religious liberty implications.


Source: Erik Eckholm, “California Is First State to Ban Gay ‘Cure’ for Minors,” New York Times (September 30, 2012).


  • Paul Abella

    Even Exodus has now come out and stated that you can’t “pray away the gay.” The best you can do is ask someone to live an absolutely miserable life in celibacy. Why waste insurers’ money and minors’ time trying to force them to do something that doesn’t work?

  • Larry Farlow

    Since when does a state government have the authority to instruct professional organizations how they will or will not enforce professional standards? If the state is saying it’s illegal, they need to come out (no pun intended) and say they will arrest you for it, not hide their power grab behind professional organizations.

  • Nathan Cesal

    This law will save lives. If you think that is an overstatement, for every person that you can show me that has come through these programs unscathed, I can show you 100 that haven’t. A major problem I see with these programs is that the onus is placed completely on the individual to try to survive within a hostile environment. No attempts are made to change the environment in order to help the individual live according biblical standards. And the worst part is that these programs are filled with extra-biblical standards. Shame on the church and pastors for farming people out to these programs –I guess they don’t really believe that the bible is sufficient for instruction in righteousness, and so they send people to some paraministry where things beyond the authority of the church take place (some of which can be pretty crazy). Again, shame on you!

  • BDW

    The “compelling interest” seems to be in the context of those agencies that are in the reach of the state’s regulatory arm.

    Like any law with social/moral implications, the courts will have to eventually interpret it. I see no religious liberty implications except for those institutions that receive state funds and are again, already being regulated.

    Did you see that a federal judge rejected the RFRA challenges (and other challenges) to the contraceptive coverage mandate? The opinion is not too long. The rationale is interesting and currently being debated among well-known con law scholars on UCLA’s Religion & Law listserv.

    • Randall Seale

      Denny’s second part states: “California has a compelling interest in protecting the physical and psychological well-being of minors, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth, and in protecting its minors against exposure to serious harms caused by sexual orientation change efforts.”

      So if a “gay” teen (< 18 yrs old) approached a youth pastor and stated that he was "gay" but wanted to be saved, would the youth pastor be allowed to tell him to repent (of his homosexuality) and believe in Jesus? Although a previous case (Nally vs Grace Community Church, circa mid-80's) was tossed out, it would seem that if this teen for whatever reasons sought to harm himself that the youth pastor would be found guilty of "serious harms caused by sexual orientation change efforts."

      It's difficult for me to see how this won't have religious liberty implications in CA.

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