Religion, Politics, and Public Policy

In view of the many public statements by political persons that the United States was founded upon Judeo-Christian principles, one becomes convinced that none of them has actually read the First Amendment’s opening lines:



Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.

On their face, the words accept even atheists and agnostics, Islam, and Zoroastrianism, among others. They reveal no hint of Judaic or Talmudic principles of law or religion. Every student of civics understands that the US is not a theocracy—a state with an official religion—yet some seek to press their religious views upon others as though such was a necessary criterion for election. The righteousness of such advocacy ignores not only the religious freedom of others, but presses the use of religious principle to replace an accepted secular morality and recreate public policy in the likeness of that religious belief.  A religious principle embedded in law operates to the deficit of others functioning as a prohibition on free exercise and an establishment.

Offering lip service to church/state separation, some self-proclaimed religious citizens still hew to a religious-law-above-all tenet. “God’s law is superior to man’s,” they say. They don’t explain how forcing laws derived from religious belief on those who do not share that belief aligns with freedom of religion. Yet, in a number of contexts such as birth control and same sex marriage, the religious imperative is rarely far beneath the surface of advocacy alleging a violation of religious freedom.

Until 1973, same-sex relationships were deemed mental disorders by the American Psychiatric Association and until 1975 by the American Psychological Association. Both removed the reference in their Diagnostic and Statistical Manuals and, along with a number of other medical and counseling professional organizations, condemned conversion therapy.

Currently, there exists a religious contretemps in the Commonwealth concerning conversion or reparative therapy, a process advocated as a treatment or cure for [deviant] sexual orientation. Advocates assert that access to such therapy or treatment is a matter of religious freedom and parent-child privacy. Opponents cite the absence of evidence of efficacy with respect to the effects, and its condemnation as harmful by professional and medical organizations.

At present, 14 states and the District of Columbia ban conversion therapy, along with 44 cities and counties across the US.

A bill was introduced in the 2018 legislative session in Virginia to ban health care professionals from engaging persons under the age of 18 in sexual orientation change efforts. A prominent opponent is Sen. Amanda Chase, who tweeted:

God created the first family. His plan was Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve. God’s design,  not mine. While God loves all people, they will only be truly happy when they follow His plan for marriage.

What hubris! A spokesperson for God in our legislature? And what of those who do not agree with your view of God and what God demands? More pointedly, how shall atheists who freely exercise their right not to practice a religion respond? Chase charges that the ban on conversion therapy violates free speech, religious liberty, and endangers children who should be able to obtain helpful counseling. The logic appears to be that intervention or reparative therapy for children will prevent same-sex marriage and, thus, be consistent with God’s design, offering true happiness.

For one thing, the Bible is not intrinsically religious; only its interpretation may be. Does Ms. Chase approve of the fact that Cain married his sister? Is incest less objectionable than homosexuality? Whether such a first family ever, in fact, existed is not either a secular or religious mandate against same-sex marriage or for exclusive heterosexual ones. 

Violations of religious liberty are difficult to appreciate since the ban is based upon protection of the public, specifically minor children. Moreover, if children are potentially harmed by the therapy, its ban further supports public protection. Is it a contest between individual and religious rights or one about the safety of a vulnerable group? Twenty years ago, Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old gay youth, was brutally robbed and murdered in Wyoming in a criminal act of hate. His remains are to be interred in the Washington National Cathedral on October 26. A presiding bishop remarked:

…we believe L.G.B.T.Q. people are beloved children of God, not in spite of their identities but because of who they are–who God created them to be.

Conversion therapy’s non-acceptance of the sexual orientation of some persons serves only to highlight differences and isolate them for their intrinsic humanity.  Worse, it is a moral condemnation in the guise of morality and religion.  If the advocates of conversion therapy were truly Christian, their zeal would be more in the spirit of religion by way of acceptance of those sexual orientations.

During his administration in 2013, Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey signed legislation banning the practice, stating that his action was based on research that found “efforts to change sexual orientation can pose critical health risks, including, but not limited to, depression, sexual abuse, social withdrawal, decreased self-esteem, and suicidal thoughts.” SCOTUS declined to hear an appeal of the ban in 2015. In 2017, SCOTUS for a second time declined to hear an appeal from a California ban alleging that the state’s statute violated religious freedom. Christie’s statement is precisely the intersection of religion, politics, and public policy where such mischief draws attention.

On at least three occasions, SCOTUS has declined to hear appeals on state bans against conversion therapy, but such rejection, along with the mounting number of jurisdictions in opposition, does not appear to faze conversion converts in Virginia. Nothing prevents or precludes advocates of conversion therapy from employing it in their families. The nub of the issue is that state bans on the practice means that professionally licensed practitioners cannot be reimbursed by an insurance carrier, and engaging in such practice jeopardizes state licensure. 

Unfortunately, that reality leaves some minor children at a health risk that advocates also assert is a freedom of the parent-child relationship. It would be simpler if only God would not allow the birth of children with same sex orientations. It’s already a truism that the child may have difficulty obtaining a wedding cake later in life.



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