State-Licensed Ministers Can’t “Pray Away the Gay,” SCOTUS Affirms

The Supreme Court’s refusal to consider an appeal of California’s 2012 ban on conversion therapy is the clearest sign yet that even a Neil Gorsuch Court is unwilling to allow religious practitioners to engage in objectively harmful behavior—at least when it comes to minors whose care has been entrusted to licensed mental health professionals.

The summary rejection of the appeal effectively affirms the lower court’s ruling that California’s law was narrowly tailored—impacting only therapists and counselors licensed by the state—and furthered the state interest of protecting minors from a “treatment” proven wholly ineffective and actually dangerous to the already-at-risk population at which such “therapy” is aimed.

The Court’s decision bodes well for the six other states (and Washington, D.C.) which have adopted their own statutory bans on conversion therapy, largely modeled after the California legislation. Notably, all of those laws limit the restriction on “conversion therapy” to state-licensed practitioners working with minor clients. Adults hoping to “pray away the gay” are still legally free to do so in all 50 states.

In fact, even the California minister who filed suit is free to practice the debunked “therapy”—he just can’t engage minors in the practice, and can’t represent himself as a state-licensed therapist offering that treatment. In his ministerial duties he is free to preach about the power of prayer (or, in some cases, more nefarious tactics) to “rescue” people from the bonds of queerness. But what he can’t do, according to the newly affirmed precedent, is claim that his “religious beliefs” trump actual science and the overwhelming findings of peer-reviewed research about the efficacy of such tactics. That’s a major victory for common sense, and anyone who believes in the power of empirical study to identify the real impact of any controversial treatment.

Although it’s not articulated clearly in the minister’s complaint, California’s ban on conversion therapy is pointedly trans-inclusive, barring state-licensed practitioners from attempting to change the sexual orientation or gender identity of any minor patient. That’s an important distinction in a political moment where trans people are subjected to state-sanctioned hostility and segregation.

On Monday, facts, research, and the consensus of actual experts in a given field prevailed over the “religious freedom” claims of a small group seeking to subject young people to harmful “therapy” that would tell them they are innately disordered and shameful to their God. That might feel like a small victory, but it does provide welcome legal affirmation of the broad scientific consensus that LGBTQ people do not need to be (and indeed, cannot be) “cured.”

It also offers a clear signal to other states considering bans on conversion therapy that they are on solid legal footing. Most crucially, it signals to those religious adherents who would hope to deny the humanity of their LGBTQ neighbors (or children) that they’ll have to find another, more legally compelling reason to claim that their callous mistreatment of LGBTQ people is somehow justified.