Should psychological counselors in New Jersey be allowed to attempt to change the sexual orientation of children?
A bill banning the practice is scheduled for a hearing with the state Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee on December 17. The issue has already sparked national debate, with socially conservative professional groups parting ways with larger national organizations.
The bill (S-2278) is sponsored by Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney (D-Cumberland, Gloucester and Salem) and Sen. Raymond J. Lesniak (D-Union).
The New Jersey Psychological Association supports the measure. Executive Director Josephine Minardo said a consensus has formed against the approach.
“All of the major national psychological, psychiatric, and counseling associations — including our national organization, the American Psychological Association — have found that this kind of therapy is actually very harmful,” in addition to being ineffective, Minardo said.
This puts the association in the unique position of supporting a bill restricting the therapy that some of its members provide.
“We have just cautioned that we have concerns about legislating specific types of treatment and we don’t want to it to set a precedent,” Minardo said.
The bill prohibits counselors from attempting to change children’s sexual orientation, including efforts to change “behaviors or gender expressions, or to reduce or eliminate sexual or romantic attractions or feelings toward a person of the same gender.”
Opponents of the measure include the Jersey City-based Jews Offering New Alternative for Healing, or JONAH.
JONAH founder Arthur Goldberg said legislators don’t understand “both sides of the equation. There are literally hundreds and hundreds of people who have successfully changed” their sexual orientation through therapy, he said.
He also noted that the American College of Pediatricians, a socially conservative organization, supports the therapy.
Goldberg said he hopes that the public becomes better informed about the issue.
“In a free democracy, freedom of speech is a healthy thing,” Goldberg said. “Let’s have a full and fair dialogue.”
Goldberg also noted that U.S. District Court Judge William Schubb ruled that a similar law in California infringes on the free-speech rights of counselors, temporarily blocking it.
Taking JONAH to Court
A legal case in New Jersey is also targeting the practice.
In November, Goldberg and JONAH were sued by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The lawsuit maintains that the organization is committing consumer fraud by offering sexual orientation “reparative” therapy.
The suit quotes a warning by the American Psychiatric Association that the “potential risks of reparative therapy are great, including depression, anxiety and self-destructive behavior, since therapist alignment with society prejudices against homosexuality may reinforce self-hatred already experienced by the patient.”
Sweeney said he decided to become a sponsor of the bill because attempts to change sexual orientation are fundamentally wrong.
“You’re being told that something is wrong with you — that’s not right,” Sweeney said. “If you love your children, you have to accept your child for who he or she is.”
Sweeney said counselors who believe they can change people’s sexual orientation have an outdated view. He expressed concern that parents would try to force this therapy on their children.
“Kids are under enormous peer pressure to start with and being a kid and being homosexual, it’s a lot of stress in the school environment to start with and the one place you look for support is your family,” Sweeney said.
Goldberg rejected the argument that homosexuality isn’t an appropriate subject for treatment, despite psychologists arguing for decades that it isn’t a disorder.
“Is it appropriate to treat people who are overweight” or who have other conditions that aren’t mental disorders? Goldberg asked.
Mat Staver, president of Liberty Counsel, a national legal organization opposed to laws prohibiting the practice, said the bill would interfere with both freedom of speech and the counselor-patient relationship. His organization provides legal representation to the American Association of Christian Counselors.
“There is evidence of efficacy,” Staver said, adding: “It is the parent who has the ability to consult their children and make the decision in conjunction with their children” whether to pursue counseling.
Lesniak said he was prompted to support the measure based on the scientific evidence he had read.
“I know that professional organizations have already taken positions that this type of treatment has no basis in science and that it has proved to be harmful in cases,” Lesniak said. “The combination of those two in concert prompted me to ban it for minors. If adults want to make that choice, go through treatment that has no scientific basis — that happens all the time — but minors don’t have that choice and the best course is to protect them from a treatment that does not have any efficacy.”
The Assembly version of the bill has been referred to the Assembly Women and Children Committee.