“Conversion therapy” ban threatens Indiana church ministry
The proposed West Lafayette city ordinance would target unlicensed counselors
For 45 years, Faith Church in West Lafayette, Ind., has operated a free Biblical counseling ministry for members of the community. But that outreach is now threatened by a city council proposal that would penalize anyone who talks with minors to help them overcome unwanted same-sex attraction or gender dysphoria.
Proposed Ordinance 31-21 prohibits unlicensed persons from practicing “conversion therapy” with children under the age of 18, with the penalty of up to $1,000 per day for violators. It defines conversion therapy as “any practices or treatments that seek to change an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity, including efforts to change gender expressions or to eliminate or reduce sexual or romantic attractions or feelings towards individuals of the same gender.”
Regent School of Law professor Brad Jacob had two words for that: “Blatantly unconstitutional.” Jacob, a constitutional law expert, said the proposal contradicts decades of free speech law. “Essentially they’re saying the only acceptable worldview is that if you feel these impulses, you must act on them,” said Jacob. “That’s nuts.”
Faith Church senior pastor Steve Viars said the proposed ordinance strikes at the heart of a ministry that currently has 32 counselors offering 60-80 hours of Biblical counseling to members of the community each week. He argued the ordinance, by its breadth, could even bar parents from counseling their own children in sexual matters.
“We’re not fighters,” said Viars. “We’re not people who are just looking to get into it with somebody. We want to love our community, and Biblical counseling is one of the ways that we’ve chosen to do that.”
Faith’s ministry is an outgrowth of a form of counseling popularized by the late Presbyterian pastor Jay Adams in his 1970 book Competent To Counsel. Adams, who died in 2020, advocated for a strictly Biblical approach to counseling that remains popular today.
After receiving a post-Thanksgiving media tip that the city council was considering the ordinance, Viars sent a Dec. 2 letter to the mayor and the council asking that the proposal be shelved or that at least a religious exemption be allowed. The pastor made clear he did not favor conversion therapy, a secular technique that, in its most extreme and now-discredited forms, can involve shock treatments and aversion therapy in an attempt to change unwanted sexual attractions. Still, the city council ignored Viars’ overture.
That galvanized opposition, leading Faith Church and other area churches, campus groups, and concerned citizens to found Lafayette Citizens for Freedom, an organization advocating for religious liberty. It also led to an outpouring of what Viars said were hundreds of letters and now over 4,700 emails to City Council members. At a packed council meeting in early December, Mayor John Dennis spoke against the ordinance proposal. “We need to remember that parents have rights, and individuals have rights,” said Dennis. “If parents choose to seek faith-based guidance, are we going to be the ones to say no you can’t do that?”
The city council tabled motions to approve the ordinance at meetings in January and December and is scheduled to consider an amended version of the proposal on Feb. 7.
West Lafayette’s proposed ordinance is unlike other talk bans that target licensed counselors and which LGBT advocates have pushed in states and localities around the country. Those bans have received a mixed reception by courts. In Washington, licensed counselor Brian Tingley is appealing to a federal court after he lost a challenge to a state law that bans counseling minors for unwanted same-sex attractions. In Atlanta, a federal appeals court is considering rehearing a November 2020 panel ruling that struck down similar talk bans in Palm Beach County and Boca Raton, Fla.
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