Sara Scholes: It is already illegal in Utah to use ‘therapy’ to change your belief in God

(Pat Bagley | The Salt Lake Tribune) This cartoon, titled "Conversion Therapy," appears in The Salt Lake Tribune on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2019.

I find it appalling that a Utah law exists making it a felony to subject an individual to treatment in order to change his belief in God, yet the Utah Legislature failed to pass a law which would offer the same measure of protection to children from the destructive effects of conversion therapy.

Title 17, Chapter 43, Part 3 of the Utah Code states: “It is a felony to give psychiatric treatment, nonvocational mental health counseling, case-finding testing, psychoanalysis, drugs, shock treatment, lobotomy, or surgery to any individual for the purpose of changing his concept of, belief about, or faith in God.”

Far more egregious, however, is religion disguised as government actively perpetuating oppression and discrimination of LGBTQIA+ individuals as doctrine and interfering in the passage of this important protection.

After nearly a decade of work by dedicated individuals, activists and groups such as Equality Utah, House Bill 399 “Prohibition of the Practice of Conversion Therapy Upon Minors” perished in the hands of the Utah Legislature back in March. The principle executioner, state Rep. Karianne Lisonbee from Clearfield, introduced substitute language at the eleventh hour, reducing the bill to a hollow piece of legislation.

Now Utah stands at a crossroads once again, waiting to see if eleventh-hour interference on the last day of the of public comment period from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will prevent the Utah Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing from enacting a proposed rule change to prohibit licensed professionals from continuing to practice conversion therapy with minors. I am left questioning if our elected officials truly are representing their constituents or if they are falling in line behind the wake of this interference.

The phrase “at the eleventh hour” is taken from a passage in the King James Bible, Matthew 20:1-16. Known as the “Parable of the Laborers,” it describes a group of laborers who did not start work until the end of the day but were still paid a full day’s wages because God teaches us to be benevolent, not judge those who are different than us, and that we should give freely. Most importantly, the lesson is that no one has to earn God’s divine love.

Caitlin Ryan of The Family Acceptance Project states, “providing guidance on addressing the health risks associated with conversion therapy is the responsibility of public institutions,” and her research found that minors administered sexual-identity conversion therapy — either from health care professionals, religious clergy or parents — were 63% more likely to attempt suicide as compared to those with no sexual-identity conversion efforts. The Utah Suicide Prevention Coalition reports that, for youth ages 10-17, Utah ranked fifth in the nation for suicide deaths.

Reducing suicide attempts and the completion rate in Utah is a public health crisis and a moral imperative. The path forward is to learn from the mistakes of our history and stop clinging to outdated social constructs. Being LGBTQIA+ or gender-fluid is not a disease, there is nothing to cure, it is time to stop pathologizing differences and love one another freely and benevolently.

I challenge Gov. Gary Herbert, DOPL, LDS Family Services, LDS Church President Russell M. Nelson and the Utah Legislature to contemplate that, if inflicting treatment upon an individual for the purpose of changing their faith in God is considered reprehensible enough to be illegal, perhaps it is conceivable that the most innocent and deserving of God’s love among us, his children are also worthy of the same protection from the inhumane practice of conversion therapy. The proposed rule change by the psychology licensing board should be allowed to move forward without further inference and is only the first step towards correcting the grievous error committed by the Utah Legislature by failing to pass this vital law.

Sara E. Scholes, is a master of social work student, class of 2020, at the University of Utah.