SALT LAKE CITY — The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints again denounced abusive forms of conversion therapy on Tuesday but also announced its opposition to the proposed Utah licensing rule that would ban those therapies, calling it too broad and ambiguous.
The rule should be amended or dropped in favor of a legislative solution, the church said both in a statement and in a 13-page letter from the church’s counseling services arm, Latter-day Saints Family Services, to the Utah Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing.
“Although well intentioned, the proposed rule as written will strongly dissuade many responsible therapists from providing much-needed therapy to minors,” the letter said. “That is especially true of therapists whose counseling respects the religious identity and faith perspectives of Latter-day Saints and members of other faith communities with biblically informed beliefs about gender and sexuality.”
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert directed the Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing to create a rule governing sexual orientation and gender identity change efforts after a bill on conversion therapy that the church did not oppose was changed in the Legislature in March.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender support organizations like Equality Utah backed HB399 last February because it would have made it illegal for licensed therapists and health professionals to attempt to change or “fix” a child’s or teen’s sexual orientation or gender identity. The bill was modeled on laws passed in 16 other states. One of the bill’s chief goals was to reduce youth suicide in Utah.
Before the bill came to a vote, a heavily criticized substitute bill replaced it. Equality Utah director Troy Williams resigned from the governor’s suicide prevention task force in protest. Williams has supported the proposed rule.
The Family Services letter released Tuesday shows that the church preferred HB399 to the proposed rule.
“It is abundantly clear that the Legislature is competent to address this issue,” the letter said. “HB399, supported by Equality Utah and other progressive influencers, made an important and responsible contribution to this discussion and received substantial support from legislators. While the bill’s definition of conversion therapy, which largely tracked definitions in other states’ statutes, was broad, the bill’s safe harbor provisions were real and protected a number of legitimate practices not intended to change sexual orientation or gender identity. “
The substitute bill also died, and the legislative session ended without addressing conversion therapy.
In June, Herbert issued his directive to the Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing to create the proposed rule, which can go into effect without legislative oversight or approval.
“Family Services believes the proposed rule falls short and should be withdrawn to allow the Legislature to address these challenging issues,” the letter from the church organization said. “Alternatively, the proposed rule should be amended to accommodate the concerns discussed above.”
The Sutherland Institute issued a statement last week that asked the Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing to return the decision to the Legislature and governor.
While winning the support of the Legislature “may make resolving a challenging policy issue such as this more politically and substantially difficult,” Sutherland said, “experience has taught our state that this rigor tends to produce the best public policies. When the well-being of children and families is involved, the path toward the best public policy is the only satisfactory option.”
Equality Utah’s Williams disagreed with both the church and Sutherland.
“The church’s statement is profoundly disappointing,” Williams said. “The proposed rule would do nothing more than protect LGBTQ children from conversion therapy — a life-threatening practice that has been condemned by all of the state’s and the nation’s medical and mental health authorities. Studies have found that more than 60% of children subjected to conversion therapy attempt suicide. Suicide is the leading cause of death among Utah’s children, and LGBTQ youth are especially vulnerable. It’s long past time to protect our state’s youth by prohibiting this dangerous practice.
“We stand by the governor’s call to draft regulations based on science rather than politics.”
Family Services’ concerns include a belief that the rule relies on a false premise that there is professional consensus about the rule’s broad definition of conversion therapy, according to the letter.
The proposed rule “fails to account for important realities of gender identity development in children, it would undermine the right of clients to self-determination and the right of parents to guide the development of their children and it ignores the important and ethically appropriate role of faith-based perspectives in counseling,” the Family Services letter said.
The letter addressed sexual orientation and gender identity.
“Family Services has a longstanding and express policy against using therapies that seek to ‘repair,’ ‘convert’ or ‘change’ sexual orientation, such as from homosexual to heterosexual,” the letter stated. “Research demonstrates that electric shock, aversion and other analogous therapies are both ineffective and harmful to youth who experience same-sex attraction.”
It also said that studies show gender dysphoria does not persist in the majority of young children who experience it. Family Services counselors therefore “assist young children in healthy identity exploration and development” and do not support immediate gender transitioning, which can lead to physical and mental health risks, according to the letter.
President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the church’s First Presidency, commented on these issues during the faith’s international general conference earlier this month.
“Our walk must be considerate of children who are uncertain about their sexual orientation, but it discourages premature labeling because, in most children, such uncertainty decreases significantly over time,” he said. His published talk included a footnote referencing a study released in June.
His talk also called on church members to be considerate and loving toward LGBT people, a position the church reiterated in its statement on Tuesday.
“The church hopes that those who experience same-sex attraction and gender dysphoria find compassion and understanding from family members, church leaders and members, and professional counselors,” the statement said.
The Family Services letter said it does not support therapies that seek to change sexual orientation and would welcome regulation of “true” sexual orientation change efforts for minors.
“Family Services would support a carefully tailored rule directed at such abusive practices provided it did not jeopardize ethical therapies. However, the proposed rule defines both ‘sexual orientation’ and ‘sexual orientation change efforts’ so broadly that if adopted it would imperil entirely legitimate and helpful therapies, to the detriment of minor clients.”
The church expressed worries for children, parents and therapists.
“We teach the right of individuals to self-determination and the right of parents to guide the development of their children,” the church’s statement said. “We also believe faith-based perspectives have an important and ethically appropriate role in professional counseling.”
If a broad, ambiguous Utah rule banned or scared therapists from addressing sexual orientation or gender identity issues, the letter added, parents might “seek such counseling from unlicensed sources, such as from the growing ‘life coach’ industry, where the risk of actual conversion therapy is vastly greater. That will benefit neither vulnerable clients nor the mental health professions.”