Saying that some people are born gay and homosexuality is not a sin, on Monday Gov. Chris Christie signed a bill into law that forbids licensed practitioners from offering therapy to gay or lesbian minors that is aimed at changing their sexual orientation.
Following the argument of the American Psychological Association that such therapy is both coercive and potentially damaging, even traumatic, the new law says that being “lesbian, gay or bisexual is not a disease, disorder, illness, deficiency or shortcoming.”
Although he waited until the last minute to sign it, in the end the governor chose to put his name on it rather than doing nothing and letting it become law without him.
Christie, who is widely believed to be considering a run for the presidency, said that he signed it reluctantly, but only because he does not believe that the state should impose its power on parents unless it is absolutely necessary. In this case, he said, the APA’s argument convinced him that it was necessary.
Views of homosexuality have changed radically in the last decade or so, and by now it is a commonly accepted belief that sexual orientation is innate, and that changing it is difficult, if not virtually impossible. The American Psychiatric Association, which used to list homosexuality as a disorder, now also argues that it is the therapy, not the orientation, that is damaging. Organizations that promote conversion therapy have fallen on hard times; one of the most prominent, Exodus International, a Christian group, disbanded several months ago. Its leader, Alan Chambers, apologized for the pain he had caused.
The new law makes New Jersey only the second state in the nation to impose such a ban, although the first state to have done so, California, is now facing a challenge and has had to put its enforcement on hold.
Hours after Christie signed the legislation into law, Agudath Israel of America, the charedi-dominated group headquartered in Manhattan, issued a press release deploring it. “This is an unconscionable infringement on personal liberty and a trampling of personal rights, including religious and free speech rights,” the statement said.
Locally, rabbis reacted to the decision; those who spoke with the Jewish Standard ranged from noncommittal to elated.
Jonah International, a Jersey City-based Jewish organization that calls itself the “institute for gender affirmation,” was displeased, although its leader, Arthur Goldberg, said he was confident that the decision would be overturned.
Rabbi Elyse Frishman of Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes said, “Gov. Christie’s action pleases me tremendously, because he rails against coercive behavior, and the type of counseling that he is outlawing is coercive. The whole concept of psychotherapy is to guide an individual to find his or her healthy place, and certainly I know scientifically that homosexuality is not an unhealthy place, so the notion that it would need counseling to correct it is troubling to begin with.
“Implicit to a concern about Christie’s legislation is fear; one has to have a fear of homosexuality to be upset by it.”
Rabbi Paul Jacobson of Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge, who, like Frishman, is Reform, is adamant in his distaste for conversion therapy.
“I have personally seen the damage done by counselors and clergy who actively support ‘conversion therapy,'” he wrote in an email. “Governor Christie’s decision to sign into law a bill that bars licensed therapists from trying to turn gay teenagers straight should be applauded. This is not a matter of constitutional rights or a violation of free speech. No liberties are being jeopardized here. Care for the individual who seeks guidance from his therapist or other supportive source is being further ensured.
“There is a Jewish level to our argument as well. For a text of Torah to cause harm and personal emotional detriment means that we must reevaluate the text in light of our contemporary culture and society. We must also hold accountable those who deliver the messages of our tradition in a damaging and hurtful way.”
Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner of Temple Emanu-El in Closter, who is Conservative, also was harsh in his condemnation of the therapy, and of Agudath Israel’s position on it.
“I applaud Gov. Christie for his continued and courageous leadership and in particular for signing this important legislation,” he said. “I am again disappointed in the Agudah for missing the opportunity to embrace all of God’s creations as holy, and as created in God’s image.
“Therapies and counseling are not a permissible vehicle to change the way in which God created humans. Rather, they are places where one can examine and review and come to grips with who we are and how we are designed.
“Would the Agudah seek to permit therapies that wish to change skin color or gender? For the Agudah to conveniently latch on to make sexual orientation a ‘religious and political’ issue is the real abomination.”
Rabbi Adina Lewittes of Shaar Communities in Closter was appalled that Agudath Israel would “frame the defense of a practice that has been condemned by every major medical and mental health organization in the country” in civil liberties terms, she wrote in an email.
“The real conflict their statement suggests isn’t between the now unlawful practice of reparative therapy and personal freedom,” she said, “it’s between a biased and exclusive embrace of heterosexuality as the model for personal, familial and communal stability and the Jewish principle of Kevod Habriyot, the honor and dignity of every human being.”
Arguing that California and New Jersey “have heeded the ancient Jewish call not only of Kevod Habriyot but also to protect those who are most vulnerable in society, especially children,” she wrote:
“As Jewish leaders we ought to exemplify the values and ethics of pluralism, diversity and inclusion which come from deep within our own tradition, and champion the efforts of others to promote them as well.
“Helping children to learn to live the most meaningful, productive and successful lives they can in the fullness of who they are – not defend dangerous efforts to force them to be someone whom they aren’t – is a sure way to help resolve, and not perpetuate, the real conflict which seems to lie at the heart of their statement.”
Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, who leads Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood and is the immediate past president of the Rabbinical Council of America, was “neutral” on the new law, he said.
“The RCA’s reaction to this issue of reparative therapy has gone through some changes,” he said. “I as a rabbi am not equipped to recommend or not recommend a particularly type of therapy on a global level. I don’t think we know enough about it to do that. I know that there has been a good deal of controversy over reparative therapy, with some individuals maintaining that it has worked for them and enhanced their lives, and many others questioning its efficacy and even its appropriateness.
“The RCA remains neutral about this therapy and maintains that individuals should have the right to chose the therapy of their choice, but should not be coerced to participate in therapy that they feel is inappropriate for them.”
Jonah’s Goldberg is firmly against the new legislation.
He called Christie’s decision to sign it “a tragic mistake, based on misrepresentations.” Witnesses have lied about “so-called conversion therapy,” which he and his supporters prefer to call “gender-affirming therapy.” Goldberg said “there is no specific therapy for this. Sometimes it’s conventional therapy, sometimes EMDR” – eye movement desensitization and reprocessing- “therapy.”
Jonah now is the defendant in a civil suit in New Jersey State Superior Court brought by four men and their parents, who claim that the men were harmed by reparative therapy.
“Jonah profits off of shameful and dangerous attempts to fix something that isn’t broken,” Christine P. Sun, the deputy legal director for the Southern Poverty Law Center, which took the case to court, said when the lawsuit was filed last November, according to a report in the Huffington Post.
“The lawsuit is chugging along,” Goldberg said. “We are represented by an absolutely fabulous law firm, Freedom of Conscience.” That firm’s views are made clear on its website, which includes such otherwise hard-to-find information as a “Radical Homosexual Agenda vs. Religious Liberty” chart.
Jonah’s website also includes a 2004 RCA statement endorsing the therapy. The RCA later withdrew its support and asked that the statement be taken down. “We felt that it was not our place to support or not support a particular therapy. We were not equipped to do so,” Goldin said. “Therefore, we asked them to remove our letter from their site. It has not yet happened, and lawyers have gotten involved to get that to happen.”
Goldberg said that the endorsement remains on the Jonah website because “it is a historic document,” although it is not so labeled. Jonah would like to meet with RCA representatives to discuss the issue, he said, “but they won’t meet with us.
“They just ignore us.”