As of this week, gay conversation therapy is outlawed in the state of New Jersey. Kids who are either gay or suspected of being gay cannot be forced by their parents to endure homophobic corrective therapy, which assemblyman and bill sponsor Tim Eustice correctly calls "an insidious form of child abuse".
Not only does conversion therapy fail to actually "convert" gay kids into straight ones, but, according to the American Psychological Association (which disavows the practice), it often leaves lasting scars, leading to mental health issues and substance abuse. California is the only other state in the nation that has attempted to ban conversion therapy, but that ban is caught up in ongoing legal battles.
Conversion therapists argue that their practice helps young people who are struggling with their sexuality, and that choosing the therapy is a First Amendment issue. Outlawing conversion therapy, they say, is one step on the "slippery slope of government infringing upon the First Amendment rights of counselors to provide, and patients to receive, counseling consistent with their religious beliefs".
Religious freedom is a constitutional right. But it's not the only one. Too often, the religious "freedom" of a parent comes at the expense of their children's basic human rights and rights to equal protection under the law. Kids are not simply extensions of their parents. They are individual people, and while they should be guided and directed and for the most part under the legal authority of their parents, their own rights to personal safety, health care and freedom from abuse should not be subsumed in some bizarro-world version of religious liberty.
Parents in the United States have remarkable latitude when it comes to determining how they will raise their children. There's often good reason behind that: The state doesn't actually know what's best for every family, and a diversity of individuals are going to have a diversity of needs. The overwhelming majority of parents want what's best for their kids and are in the best position to assess their own child's interests. And state interference with parenting practices has historically targeted minority groups and often violated the rights of children. Generations of Native American youth, for example, were taken from their families and placed in boarding schools, often run by churches, which were explicitly purposed to impart Christian European-American ideals onto the students and strip them of their heritage and traditions. The "education" of these children went on for centuries, and was part of a broader concerted effort to culturally annihilate Native Americans. Missionaries played a handy role, and the US government also got on board, opening schools of its own and funding the cultural genocide.
This isn't ancient history. Enrollment in these schools hit its peak in the 1970s. Today, Indian children in many states are still disproportionately removed from their homes and placed in white foster care. African American children, too, are more likely to be placed in foster care than white children.
It's easy to look at governmental interference into family life and determine that it tends to be racist and harmful to kids. The underlying problem, though, isn't any state intervention at all; it's the lack of holistic advocacy for the best interests and human rights of children. The focus on parental rights obscures the rights of the children themselves, and often means that where families don't fit into a middle class, white Christian ideal, parenting is suspect.
Kids are removed from loving homes if, for example, the family is in financial straits and there are no shelter beds available one night. Homeless moms are prosecuted for placing their kids in school districts where the kids don't "belong". What would actually help kids, of course, isn't removing them from their families. It's making an effort to keep families intact and prioritizing the needs of children – making sure that they have a roof over their head, healthy food, a decent education, knowledge of their own culture and the parents who love them.
Recognizing the basic human rights of children means outlawing practices that are abusive to those children, even if such practices are done under the guise of religion, tradition or culture. Parents may have a right to raise their children in accordance with a particular set of religious beliefs, but that right ends before the point a child endures psychological or physical harm. Unfortunately, in the United States, parents (and particularly Christian parents) have far too much leeway when it comes to using religion as an excuse to harm their kids or deny them care. Extreme examples of parents who rely on "faith healing" often make the news when their children die after illnesses are not cured by prayer alone. Too often, those parents receive light sentences, like one couple who received probation after their first child died from an easily treatable illness, simply because the couple believed God told them not to ask for medical help. During the probationary period, their ten-month-old baby also got sick and died after they refused to seek out medical care for him as well. It's unconscionable.
These issues, of course, aren't always quite so clear cut. Take, for example, the Supreme Court case in which an Amish family fought for the right to remove their children from school after the 8th grade, despite a Wisconsin law requiring that children attend school until they are 16 years old. The Amish religion requires that their children are raised without "worldly influence", but attending high school would violate that precept. The court sided with the parents, yet it wasn't the parents who were attending the school and whose religious beliefs where thereby challenged; the religious right violated was, apparently, the rights of parents to have total control over the beliefs of their children and the exposure of those children to the outside world. Children have a right to education; does it not violate their rights to allow their parents to remove them from school? And on the other hand, children also have a right to be raised in their own cultures and households, barring abuse – can't compulsory education infringe upon that right?
So I don't mean to suggest that there are always easy answers when it comes to the rights of children and the rights of parents to make decisions for their children. But some cases are easier than others. There are a great many religious fundamentalist parents who homeschool their children, offering very little in the way of actual education but much indoctrination, leaving their children ill-prepared to function in the real world. The kids themselves have no say in the matter, and there's little government regulation of home-schooling to ensure that kids educated at home actually receive an education. Plenty of homeschooling parents do a great job educating their kids. But lots of others don't. Teaching your kid that Adam and Eve rode around on dinosaurs and that they don't need to know math past simple addition may not rise to the level of abuse, but it's a violation nonetheless.
Typically, courts hold that religious freedom covers educational choices, but doesn't extend to the right to allow your child to die from lack of medical care. Bizarre interpretations of "religious freedom" do, however, sometimes mean that parents aren't prosecuted as strongly for neglecting their children or letting those children die if the neglect was motivated by a religious belief rather than malice or simple idiocy. Many states have laws on the books that give religious exemptions to parents, deeming it not actually neglect or abuse if you deny your kid medical attention and he suffers serious harm or even dies. You also probably have the right to not vaccinate your child, even though that puts him at risk and threatens others as well.
Some mainstream religious groups and leaders even promote physically assaulting children as a necessary aspect of Christian parenthood. Christian couple Michael and Debi Pearl are the authors of the best-selling book "To Train Up a Child," which advocates beating children from infancy on, using "the same principles the Amish use to train their stubborn mules". The book is widely read in homeschooling Christian communities, and has been tied to the brutal beatings and deaths of many children.
Yet it's hard to have the moral authority to say "don't hit your kid" when no state bans corporal punishment in the home. Many allow it in public schools. While children of course sometimes need to be physically restrained to keep them from being a danger to themselves or others, physically striking them as a form of punishment violates their basic right to live free from violence, and is increasingly understood to do more harm than good. We're not talking about swatting your kid's hand away to keep her from touching a hot stove. We're talking about using violence as punishment: you've been bad, so you will be intentionally and purposefully hit in physical retaliation by a person who is much larger than you and has total legal authority over you. More than 30 nations outlaw corporal punishment, and aren't exactly facing epidemics of out-of-control children or good non-abusive parents going to jail en masse. Kids in the US could use some of those same basic rights.
Too often missing from the debates of religious freedom and parental rights is the right of the child to be afforded basic protections, let alone equal ones. Children have a right, wherever possible, to be raised by their biological parents. Children have a right to be raised within their own culture, and not stolen from their families because those families don't meet the dominant-culture ideal. And children have a right to live free of violence, even where their parents believe committing acts of violence against their children is a God-given privilege.
The New Jersey law banning conversion therapy is one step in the right direction of protecting children from abuse. It will undoubtedly be challenged by those who think that kids are parental property and not human beings entitled to bodily integrity. Hopefully, though, it will serve as a model for future legislation protecting the most basic rights of children – and hopefully, the peddlers of "religious freedom" as cover for misogyny, homophobia and abuse will eventually see their schick uncovered.
[Young man with Gay Pride flag via Shutterstock]