Does our right to religious freedom include the endangerment of our LGBT youth?
Earlier this year, Pastor Jamie Coots of the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name in Middlesboro, Kentucky was bitten by a rattlesnake and died. Snake handling was something he did often as part of his religious practice. In fact, it was part of the Christian faith handed down to him from his family. The night of his death paramedics offered him anti-venom, which would have saved his life. By faith, he refused.
As crazy as it sounds, Coots choice to die by snakebite in the name of God was a decision he alone was allowed to make. He was an adult with full-grown children. Though we may disagree with his decision, as well as the premise on which it was based, our country was built on the foundation of freedom of religion. Everyone has a right to believe, or not believe, anything they wish, even if it means their own demise. If Coots had been handing venomous snakes off to children, Christians and non-Christians alike, would have requested an investigation into exactly what was going on at Coots’ church. Putting a child’s life in danger triggers something in all of us to take action. That is, most of the time.
On Tuesday, December 2, the Washington D.C. Council passed the Conversion Therapy for Minors Prohibition Amendment Act of 2014. The act says that a mental healthcare provider “shall not engage in sexual-orientation change efforts, [attempting to change someone’s sexual orientation from gay to straight], with a consumer who is a minor.” To do so could subject the provider to professional discipline, and/or other possible penalties. This amendment added D.C. to the short, but growing list of places where reparative therapy for minors is illegal.
Though this may seem unrelated to snake handling, there are no opponents to prohibiting reparative therapy, except for those on the religious right.
Reparative therapy has been condemned by nearly every major mental and medical health organization. Increasingly, evidence shows it is not only unsuccessful but can cause emotional harm, including depression, anxiety and shame. Often, minors are sent to ex-gay programs against their will, or are put into counseling sessions with therapists who rely more on Bible verses than empirical methods.
Indeed, there are no methods by which a person’s sexual orientation can be changed – religious or otherwise. The evidence only suggests a change in behavior, not orientation.
Still, according to a 2013 Pew Research poll, 59% of white Protestants believe homosexuality is something that should be discouraged, while 51% of black Protestants agree. Also in 2013, the Gay Christian Network surveyed 3,000 young Christians in evangelical colleges across the U.S. The participants they surveyed were split in half, 46% to 46%, on those who believed gay sex is a sin and those who don’t. 64% of the 46% who said gay sex is a sin, also believed gay sexual orientation is chosen. 20% were unsure. 66% said they believed that people are definitely not born gay. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that if the belief is that homosexuality is sinful and chosen, why wouldn’t it be changeable?
Herein lies the problem: religious belief vs. empirical evidence. 78% of those surveyed in the U.S. claim to be Christians, while 51.3% of those claim to be Protestants. While the shift has slowly turned toward acceptance of LGBT people, there are a significant number of those in the religious right with political influence fighting to preserve the “right” of reparative therapy for minors.
Does it make it acceptable because there are a larger number of people who believe in something in spite of evidence to the contrary? Many of us decry government involvement in our personal affairs, yet when religion unjustly condemns others to second-class citizenship (e.g. blacks and women), or denies equal human rights (e.g. inter-racial marriage & voting), at what point should the government step in and do something about an unfounded belief, which harms its citizens? Isn’t upholding the constitution the government’s job?
More recently, disgruntled conservatives have filled the airwaves with the idea that secularists are persecuting the church. Why? Back in the beginning of 2014 it was because a few bakers refused to make cakes for gay weddings, violating the equal rights laws of their states. Later, when some people complained about seeing football player Michael Sam kiss his boyfriend, Jason Collins, they were ridiculed on the hypocrisy that they said nothing about actual sexual images portrayed in the media, but made an issue of two affectionate gay men. Though these “persecutions” don’t begin to rival historical persecutions of jail time, being burned at the stake, and torture, they do hurt people’s feelings.
What is torture is the fact that, as several studies suggest, there is a higher rate of suicide attempts in the LGBT youth population more often than in the general population, particularly among those who live in a more heterocentric cultures. According to the CDC, 61.1% of LGBT youth are more likely than their non-LGBT counterparts to feel unsafe as a result of their sexual orientation. “The stresses experienced by LGBT youth also put them at greater risk for depression, substance use, and sexual behaviors that place them at risk for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).” According to the Human Rights Campaign, 26% fear not being accepted by their own families and friends. In my personal research, discussions, and involvement with groups such as PFLAG, I have yet to encounter homophobia that is not religion induced.
Religious groups like Focus on the Family, or programs like The 700 Club with Pat Robertson and Trinity Broadcasting Network peddle decades-old misinformation about homosexuality, while their followers spend billions buying their books, listening to their shows, and supporting these organizations that discriminate, bully and demean LGBT people. What’s worse is that parents who subscribe to the teaching proliferated by these groups are raising LGBT children.
So is reparative therapy for a minor, who is still in the process of developing his or her sexuality and self-identity, to be considered a religious freedom? If so, are religious counselors exempt from malpractice and the ultimate harm that comes from such reputed practices? Can a medical doctor then, based on his or her religious freedom, also use outdated and debunked medical practices to treat physical conditions?
Exactly what the line needs to be crossed before we decide religion has gone too far?
Photo – Flickr/michael_swan