Interfaith Alliance Executive Director Rabbi Jack Moline’s strongly-worded op-ed in The Advocate Magazine draws a clear line between anti-gay pseudo-science and the religious language that has been inappropriately used to try to give cover to pray-away-the-gay “therapy”:
There is such a thing as “junk science” and there is such a thing as “junk religion.” When the two converge, the result can be not just disastrous but deadly. A prime example of this confluence is so-called conversion or “reparative” therapy; the attempt to “reorient” sexual or gender identity, especially in children.
Recently, when the White House announced its opposition to this practice, President Obama, Valerie Jarrett, and Amanda Simpson, the first openly transgender presidential appointee, spoke movingly about the severe damage that this “treatment” has done to LGBT youth. They told tragic and all-too-familiar stories of people like Leelah Alcorn, who was driven to depression, anxiety, and suicide when forced to undergo conversion therapy. These types of treatment are not only ineffective but harmful to LGBT youth, as countless studies have shown. Less often discussed — and more my concern — is the role of some of America’s faith communities in causing this damage.
As the attempts to change children’s sexual orientation or gender identity have been abandoned in medical and psychiatric circles, purveyors of this false treatment have cloaked themselves in the guise of religion. Whether these providers are religious leaders or counselors with secular credentials, they use religious identity, religious language, and connections to religious communities to peddle their services. Vulnerable families of faith, who have been taught to reject differences in identity, grasp at the straws held out by these purveyors of pseudo-science and pseudo-faith. At its core, conversion therapy has become religiously sanctioned child abuse.
There are faith traditions that have strongly held beliefs that homosexuality is a sin. The implications for LGBT believers in those traditions are obviously heartbreaking. My own denomination, like many others, has embraced equality for the LGBT community, following a generation of activism by courageous people unwilling to give up either their faith or their sexuality. The freedoms guaranteed by our Constitution demand my respect for those who disagree.
What we can’t allow is for belief to translate into dangerous practices that put lives at risk. Faith leaders who cling to discredited notions about the origins of sexual identity nevertheless have a role to play in ensuring that their sacred traditions are not co-opted to justify abuse; there is no verse in any Scripture that endorses this bogus therapy. In the end it is our children who have been hurt most when communities are complicit in validating ignorance and bigotry.
Demanding an end to conversion therapy — and, more importantly, denying its supporters the cover of religion — is an important way for religious communities and families to begin to heal. Each community will need to find its own path to understanding. Finding inspiration within each faith tradition to accept the wholeness of our children and their identities, to love them as they were created, and to find the presence of the divine in who they grow up to be is a struggle worth having.
Communities that have been the sites of pain and disempowerment for too many of our brothers and sisters must now be centers of affirmation and inclusion for all. An important first step on the road to inclusivity is to end conversion therapy. This work is not solely about healing; it is vital to our broader struggle to define and defend religious freedom in America.
We who champion genuine religious freedom have long understood the need to distinguish between science — which addresses how things work — and religious faith, which asks why things exist. These distinctions are challenged time and time again: in the debate around teaching creationism in science classes, religious objections to sex education, or the theological patina given to climate change denial. Our government has twin obligations in these instances. It has the responsibility to regulate and interrogate science and scientific research, and it is constitutionally proscribed from challenging or policing religious belief.
Conversion therapy is not constitutionally protected precisely because it fails government’s first responsibility.
Defenders of genuine religious freedom reject attempts to weaponize the First Amendment — that is to turn religion into a tool used to deny the rights, freedoms, and identities of others. We reject the notion that an employer’s religious beliefs supersede an employee’s right to health care access. We disaffirm that a store owner’s religion counteracts the right of customers to access public accommodations. We disavow that the religious ideology of one citizen can invalidate the legal recognition of another’s relationship. Others disagree.
But in the case of conversion therapy, the solution looks relatively simple. We cannot possibly defend the use of religious ideology to attack, delegitimize, and seek to change the identities of young people as an act of religious freedom. Here, there must be a bright line.
There is profound instruction for those of us striving to better understand religious freedom through this struggle. It is a lesson about how we all must live in a world in which our beliefs will be challenged, sometimes by the children we dearly love. It is a lesson in how not to fear that others’ identities, desires, and choices are not ours to challenge or control. It has always been this way and it will always be this way; protecting true religious freedom will better guarantee a faithful outcome.
President Obama has set a lofty but achievable goal. We should abolish conversion therapy in America. I am confident that one day soon we will. But the work to repair our religious communities, to dispel the aura of religion from these abusive practices, and to make stronger our argument for religious freedom can begin right now. For people of faith, this struggle is every bit as much about banishing this convergence of junk science and junk religion from our communities as it is about banishing it from our laws.
RABBI JACK MOLINE is the executive director of Interfaith Alliance, a group that promotes religion and democracy and challenges extremism.