Fears it would ban the Bible may be overstated, but churches and therapists say AB 2943 is a threat

Concerns about religious liberty and freedom of speech in California are again at the political forefront in Sacramento, after the state Assembly passed a bill declaring advertising or engaging in sexual orientation change efforts a “fraudulent” practice.

Assembly Bill 2943, sponsored by Assemblyman Evan Low, passed the lower house April 19 by a vote of 50-18. Now before the Senate, the legislation amends the Consumer Legal Remedies Act to make such practices, also known as “conversion therapy” or “reparative therapy,” unlawful.

But the bill has courted controversy and opposition from the state’s Catholic bishops and others concerned that it could intrude on rights of therapists and patients and violate churches’ rights to teach about marriage and sexuality.

AB 2943 takes aim at “any practices that seek to change an individual’s sexual orientation,” including “efforts to change behaviors or gender expressions, or to eliminate or reduce sexual or romantic attractions or feelings toward individuals of the same sex.”

Given this sweeping definition, Assemblyman Travis Allen, a Republican candidate for governor, claimed the bill would prohibit the sale of the Bible.

Others dispute this. But the religious liberty law firm, Alliance Defending Freedom, stated that AB 2943 was “likely unconstitutional” due to its infringement on speech and the practice of religion. The firm added that books or conferences that discuss “sexual purity and discourage same-sex behavior” could also run afoul of the legislation.

The California Catholic Conference also opposed the legislation, arguing that “there is a significant question as to whether a church might be subjected to predatory or retaliatory civil litigation” for teaching traditional beliefs about sexuality and marriage.


Broadly worded bill

Legal concerns with the bill center on whether it bans any commercial transactions related to orientation change efforts, or if it only applies to individual counseling that guarantees sexual orientation can be changed.

The concern is that the broadly worded bill would discourage organizations that strive to help people live chastely with their particular sexual orientation.

The proposed legislation has already caused one Christian organization to cancel its events in California.

Summit Ministries announced April 30 it had suspended its annual summer conferences for teens and young adults at Biola University in La Mirada, California.

The organization felt that because of its encouragement of traditional views on sexuality, “not just our organization but individual members of our staff could be sued and fined if [we] went ahead with the California conference.”

Shannon Minter, a policy adviser to Low and legal director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights in San Francisco, told Angelus News concerns about the bill are misplaced.

AB 2943 does not “limit a therapist’s ability to provide competent, ethical counseling about any issue,” he said, including a patient’s desire to live chastely.

“The focus of the bill is on unethical therapists who mislead and financially defraud patients by claiming that therapy can change a person’s sexual orientation,” he added.

California law “already prohibits all types of consumer fraud, including fraudulent claims by therapists,” Mintner said. AB 2943 would simply make clear, as a matter of public policy, that sexual orientation could not be changed, and that Californians deceived by such claims had legal redress.

Minter added that “the bill would have no effect whatsoever on religious communities’ ability to express their beliefs about sexuality and gender identity, or anything else.” 

But many, including the California Catholic Conference, have concerns that the law could be exploited in court.

Adam MacLeod, a law professor at Faulkner University in Montgomery, Alabama, told Angelus News that despite the narrow intention of the bill, an activist judge unconstrained by the law could read the statute more broadly, because the bill is “ambiguous enough that it could be manipulated in different directions.”

An expansive interpretation of the bill, MacLeod said, could lead people to self-censor, and avoid discussing marriage’s true nature, or issues of gender dysphoria, because they fear a lawsuit. The bill is also a “highly unusual” intrusion into the patient-counselor relationship, he added.

“When it comes to decisions about what therapy is best for a particular patient, we generally leave those decisions to the professional bodies and to the individual patient and therapist to decide,” MacLeod said. That includes allowing people to seek services from counselors and therapists to help them reduce the effects of unwanted attractions or gender identity issues.

“We should promote the autonomy of the therapist-patient relationship, and we should want people to find healing,” he said.


Losing options for change

Bryan Kelso, a Sacramento therapist, called the bill’s potential impact “devastating.”

“It’s going to stop people from thinking they can actually get help,” he told Angelus News. 

In effect, the bill would take away a person’s freedom to consult with a licensed professional, he said. That only reinforces a false idea that people are controlled by their desires and cannot approach anyone for help with shifting them.

“If you don’t like something about yourself, you’ve lost the choice to change it,” he said. “That’s the big destructive part of the bill.”

Christopher Rosik, a psychologist in Fresno, challenges the central premise of the bill.

Rosik said therapists do not try to change a person’s sexual orientation. Instead, he said, therapists try to help their clients experience more “fluidity” in their sexual attractions and behaviors.

At the same time, he told Angelus News, religious leaders need to understand that “for the vast majority,” orientation is not a choice and dramatic change in an orientation is unlikely.

Rosik also said professional organizations like the American Psychological Association had relied on “suspect evidence” when declaring the harmfulness of orientation change efforts.

The science in this area is “at best, incomplete,” he said, held back by the increasingly partisan nature of professional boards in the social sciences.


A matter of interpretation

Father Joseph Fessio, S.J., founder of San Francisco-based Ignatius Press, does not believe the bill would affect his publishing operations.

“In itself, and the way it’s worded, it really has to do with advertising and promoting reparative therapy,” he said.

“Even if we say that homosexual orientation is disordered, as the Catechism says, we’re not saying it has to be changed, or advertising we’ll change it,” he told Angelus News. “Looking at the law, as I think a reasonable person would interpret it, I don’t think it would apply to any of our publications.”

Father Fessio cautioned, however, that California courts “could interpret things in ways that clearly go beyond the meaning or sense of the law.”

Still, his company would be undeterred from its mission of spreading the Church’s teachings.

“In any event, we are going to speak the truth with love, and proclaim the teachings of the Church and of Jesus, and if we get fined for that, we’ll take the next step from there.”


Reaching your rep

The Catholic Legislative Network is helping voters contact their representatives with concerns about the potentially broad reach that AB2943’s inclusion of the phrase “sexual orientation change efforts” to the Civil Code could mean for the state.

Voters can find the page listed in the “Action Alerts” section under the “Take Action!” tab on the California Catholic Conference website.

Nicholas Wolfram Smith is an Angelus News contributor based in Oakland.

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