Seemingly unconcerned about violating the First Amendment, several California Senators argued the state has a “public safety” interest in protecting LGBTQ identified people from the “harmful” speech of pastors and counselors. The comments came during a debate several weeks ago in the Senate Judiciary Committee over a resolution condemning any attempt to help people with unwanted same-sex attraction or gender dysphoria, or preaching that would “stigmatize” LGBTQ identities or sexual behavior.
The shocking statements were made as Assemblyman Evan Low (D-San Jose), LGBT Caucus member, and the Executive Director of Equality California Rick Zbur presented Assembly Concurrent Resolution 99, which targets Biblical counseling offered by pastors and counselors. Zbur blamed the church for the high rates of depression and suicide among those identifying as LGBTQ.
“LGBTQ people are too often told there is something wrong with them and us. And the practice of conversion therapy sends that message loud and clear, and results in psychological abuse and damage that can literally cost lives,” Zbur said at the hearing. “Let me be clear. There is nothing wrong with me.”
ACR 99, largely approved with a party-line vote in the Assembly and Senate, broadly defines “conversion therapy” as “practices or therapies that attempt to create a change in a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.” Only Assembly Republicans Chad Mayes and Jordan Cunningham bucked their party by voting yes, while Democrat Assembly members James Ramos and Tim Grayson bucked their party as well by refusing to vote on the resolution.
Arguing against ACR 99 and defending religious liberty and freedom of speech were constitutional attorney Dean Broyles, with the National Center for Law and Policy, and Rev. Phyllis Towles, representing Dr. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference.
“Jesus Christ died and rose again so that every human being created in the image of God could have the freedom to not be controlled by their physical or sexual desires, but rather exercise their right to change, not only their sexuality, but all aspects of their lives,” Towles told legislators. “The state does not have the right to legislate on such deeply personal matters.”
But that isn’t how Democrat members of the Senate Judiciary committee saw it. Senator Lena Gonzalez (D-Long Beach) said stopping conversion therapy, she labeled “harmful” and “ineffective,” didn’t violate freedom of speech rights, but simply regulated “unprofessional conduct.”
Gonzalez concluded her remarks saying, “I hope overall we don’t have to continue these discussions and we can formally have conversion therapy, in my opinion, completely out of our wheelhouse here in California. This is what we believe and I believe really California values.”
Senator Maria Durazo (D-Los Angeles) disregarded the freedom of speech arguments as well and insisted the state should instead ensure LGBTQ identified people feel respected and safe. We need to “protect the freedom of all Californias to be treated with respect and not feel that they are isolated; that they are in danger,” Durazo explained. “There are a lot of protections we have to get involved with as a government.”
Senator William Monning (D-San Luis Obispo) said he didn’t think asking pastors to stop doing “conversion therapy” violated the religious liberty of pastors either. He argued the state had an interest in regulating church counseling since the state would have to pay for some of the mental health bills of those harmed. “That’s a state of California interest if we have to pay the bill for those treatments,” Monning explained. “We are trying to protect the public safety, with absolute respect for religious freedom and confidentiality of counseling sessions.”
The two Republicans on the Judiciary Committee Senator Brian Jones and Senator Andreas Borgeas, who voted against the resolution, were neutral on whether change counseling worked or not, but thought the state shouldn’t be telling churches how to counsel their members.
“From a freedom of expression and a freedom of religion standpoint, I don’t know how we would want to undo the protections that our constitution allows for those in the faith community, ” Borgeas said.
Broyles too express alarm with how enthusiastic Democrat senators were to police the free speech of pastors in the name of protecting the public from religious doctrine and ideas they found mentally harmful. “We seem very eager, in the name of public safety and procedure, to kind of do away with the First Amendment,” Broyles told Judiciary Committee members. “If we do away with the First Amendment folks, all our freedoms go out the door. We have to be careful when we use public safety arguments and smash the First Amendment.”