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Religious Liberty in Counseling

Truth In Love 347

How should believers respond to the legal challenges found in ordinance 31-21?

Jan 24, 2022

Dale Johnson: Today we’re definitely talking about a problem, an issue, that we see cropping up in different parts of the country. Particularly, today we’re talking about an issue in West Lafayette, the city council, and an ordinance that has been proposed. With us today we have Todd Sorrell and I’m so grateful for this brother. He’s been on our podcast before so I don’t need to go into all the details about Todd, but let’s just suffice it to say that he’s very interested in ACBC, particularly in biblical counseling. In addition to being ACBC certified, he’s a licensed attorney, he’s a businessman, he’s an author, and he sometimes has the opportunity to teach at our conferences, at the Master’s University. We’ve talked to him before about all kinds of things related to counseling and particularly legal issues. One of the things we talked to him about is how we go about choosing colleges. He’s actually written a book on this, The College Choice. I would recommend it. I have to say a personal recommendation. This was something that, as we have children who are at college age, this has been impactful to us into thinking about what we value most in education for our children. I would recommend that for sure. We’ve also talked to him about the relationship of the local church with a local lawyer, how biblical counselors can minimize their chances of becoming involved in some type of lawsuit, and those types of things. Todd actually contributed to a book that should be forthcoming later this year on legal issues and biblical counseling. I’m so grateful for his work there. He definitely operates as a consultant to us on a lot of different issues relative to counseling, just helping us think through those things from a legal perspective.

But today, we have a specific issue that we want to talk about that has come up in recent weeks. Specifically, I want to get his thoughts on what’s going on in West Lafayette and the city council that’s going on there in Indiana, particularly the City Ordinance 31-21.

Last week we talked about this with Pastor Steve Viars who’s on the ground there at Faith Biblical Counseling Ministries. He’s the pastor at Faith Church. But I wanted to get a legal perspective. Last week we talked a little bit more about, from a pastoral perspective, what are some of the things that we can do as believers, how to think through these types of issues. But I want us to talk about this ordinance because this ordinance is different than maybe some of the others that we’ve heard about around the country because it specifically talks about non-licensed counseling that seeks to do gender orientation or sexual orientation change efforts talking about issues of sexual identity and that sort of thing. So I want to make sure we talk about that. While I don’t want to go into broader detail necessarily about prohibition as it relates to those laws, conversion therapy, reparative therapy, that sort of thing—You guys know our stance on conversion therapy. It is not what we do in biblical counseling. We are opposed to those secular therapies all together. We have a lot of resources on those things which we’ll put in the show notes—Articles that have been written, lectures that have been given about reparative conversion therapy. So today I want us to talk about a Christian response to some of these legal challenges and how we’re to think about this from a perspective of religious liberty, but then also just as a Christian as we think about our moral responsibility to speak the truth in love, to uphold the gospel of Christ from the Scriptures. So Todd, thank you so much for taking what the Lord has taught you in your arena in legal matters and really giving us some aid here. So, thank you brother for being here. I look forward to having this discussion. 

Todd Sorrell: Yeah, it’s always good to be with you, Dale. 

Dale Johnson: Now, I know I gave just a brief sort of overview about what’s being proposed in this ordinance relative to sexual orientation change efforts. Basically, what’s being said is, they’re wanting to remove any type of conversion therapy and that definition has sort of expanded a little bit to go beyond those secular therapies. It’s written differently than some of the other ordinances which just limit licensed providers. This one goes a little bit further to talk about non-licensed providers, which would include us as biblical counselors, not being able to engage in any type of sexual orientation change efforts and that could be a problem. So I want us to get some information from a legal mind on this ordinance particularly and what it exactly proposes to do should it pass in West Lafayette. 

Todd Sorrell: Thanks, Dale. The important thing to remember when you’re dealing with law is to focus on the specific wording of the law. This proposed West Lafayette city ordinance 31-21, it seeks to ban, like you said, unlicensed counselors from practicing conversion therapy on minors, and it’s enforced by a thousand dollar fine for each violation. Now, there’s a lot of people who are listening who might think they know what conversion therapy is but let’s not assume anything. This proposed law defines it quite broadly. For example, what would be prohibited would include “any practices or treatments that seek to change an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity, including efforts to change gender expressions or to eliminate or reduce sexual or romantic attractions or feelings toward individuals of the same gender.” Now, keep in mind that they’re trying to make this law more palatable or passable by claiming that the way the prohibition is worded is neutral. I mean, that’s one trick that a lot of municipalities, agencies, etc. have come up with. They try to make the law seem neutral on its face. So they would say, hey look, this prohibits someone from counseling a minor to change sexual orientation either way, but let’s be clear. The law is far from neutral. It specifically allows and does not prohibit “counseling that provides assistance to a person undergoing gender transition” or related to a person’s exploration of their identity “as long as such counseling does not seek to change an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity.” So again, as a lawyer, we’re trained to look precisely at the language of a statute or law. But in terms of the non-neutral way this law is phrased, the preamble to the law says this, “the city of West Lafayette, Indiana has a compelling interest in protecting the physical and psychological well-being of minors, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth, and in protecting its minors against exposure to serious harms caused by conversion therapy by unlicensed persons.”

So in short, the law would prohibit any unlicensed person from providing a service or counsel that helps a minor who might be struggling with homosexuality or transgender issues and would prohibit counseling someone that such behaviors and lifestyles are wrong or must be repented of, which is precisely what we do if asked. So this law, again, focusing on the language itself, it’s pretty detailed, but it prohibits non-licensed persons from counseling minors whether or not those minors want it or not, but you can’t even tell them or give them information about changing their orientation. 

Dale Johnson: Yeah, this would limit even a consenting minor, parents who want this to happen, a minor who would want this, voluntarily submitting to some sort of moral counsel, that sort of thing. I mean, it would prohibit all of that. And it doesn’t mention issues of heterosexuality either. This seems to be a complete one-way street when we talk about what’s happening in school systems and the encouragement of gender identity and confusion and that sort of thing, but that’s for a different day.

What I want to nail down here, Todd—and I appreciate you pointing out some of the specifics because that is really, really critical and important that we pay attention to what’s said and maybe even what’s left out here, which seems to be quite one-sided—but I want to dive down a little further. We’ve heard about laws like this—The Senate Bill 11-72 in California. You are actually in California. You’re familiar with this senate bill which describes the limitation of sexual orientation change efforts for any licensed professional toward a minor. And this is a limitation that’s consistent in a lot of different states. It’s a part of their statutes. It’s also promoted in a lot of different places, municipalities. There are a couple of places here close to Kansas City that have passed ordinances that are similar, but all of those have a distinct clause that leaves out non-licensed religious providers. We are not under that statute. This seems to be a little bit different. So, how is this ordinance different than the ones that we’ve seen like this in the past, and why, in your opinion from a legal mind, is this so troubling?

Todd Sorrell: Well, let’s keep in mind that the reason why a number of biblical counselors choose not to be licensed by the state is for precisely this. We want to share the good news of Jesus Christ. We want to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We want to share the power of the Spirit that allows and helps people change, going from a simple lifestyle to a lifestyle that can be glorifying to God. That’s the whole point of biblical counseling, right? Change. Change to become like Christ. And so, this one specifically targets, like you said, non-licensed “counselors.” That’s us. In addition, again, let’s go back to the precise language. The definition of counseling—you know, someone might be listening to this and think, you know, I’m not a counselor. It doesn’t apply to me. Well, think about the way they’ve defined it. Counseling in this proposed ordinance would be defined “as techniques used to help individuals learn how to solve problems and make decisions related to…interpersonal concerns.” It’s kind of vague, but ask yourself, do you help people solve problems? Do you help people make decisions? And by the way, despite being asked for their position on a religious exemption to this ordinance, the vast majority of the city council members in West Lafayette refused to provide a response. So you can only imagine kind of where they’re going with this. And you might think, well, I’m not really in a situation where I’m spending too much time with minors or giving advice, but again, it’s so broadly worded that it makes you wonder if everybody in the church who’s actually practicing discipleship would be covered by this. It certainly seems to apply to a pastor or a preacher. I mean, isn’t a pastor or a preacher in the business of providing advice and counsel to everybody in the congregation? Oftentimes on a one-on-one basis, but even in their sermons, they’re talking about God’s plan for life, which does not include homosexuality or transgender behavior.

So, people might stop and say, why in the world do I care about some local ordinance in Indiana? You have to look at the broader picture and be wise. The Bible tells us that we are to plan for the future and we are to be wise in our dealings with the world. If this passes and is somehow upheld, you can be sure this type of legislation is going to be spreading like wildfire throughout the country. It’s already infected other countries like Canada. We’ve talked before, but you know, there’s a Canadian bill out there that recently passed without any opposition that says if you believe that heterosexuality, or the gender that conforms to the sex assigned at birth, if you believe that that is to be preferred over other sexual orientations or gender identities or expressions, it’s a “myth.” And I’m using quotes, “myth.” They’re saying that God’s Word and teaching constitute myths. 

Now, the LGBT community often gets really angry when their lifestyle is called sin, and we know that, but they also get very angry for anyone to suggest that orientation is changeable, which is a bit odd because that’s precisely what a lot of these people are doing. They’re changing from one to the other, but you certainly can’t suggest that you can change back. Make no mistake, they’re not going to stop advancing their agenda, and even though we believe God is in control, He wants us to stand firm against sin. Now, we need to be compassionate. We need to be understanding. We need to be loving, but all of those require us to speak truth. That is part of our belief and our practice.

And, by the way, again, for those wondering how this applies, it’s important to stand with the believers in Indiana who might be impacted by this. I mean, you mentioned Faith Biblical Counseling Ministry in Lafayette. We need to support them in prayer, in action, because this is an attack on the ability to share the gospel with those who are ensnared in sin. It’s a direct attack on religious freedoms and freedom of speech. Now, as a lawyer, I’ll tell you this. This moment I think has been coming for a long time where these “rights” of LGBTQ individuals are going to have to be weighed against the specific rights that are identified in the United States Constitution. In the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, there is the freedom to practice religion and the freedom of speech. This proposed law directly infringes upon those freedoms in the Constitution.

Now, as a Christian, I’m not necessarily concerned with the law in that sense because I’m going to preach the gospel no matter where I am, but we have had the benefit for so many years of being in a land with a constitution that specifically gives us the right to practice religion and to freely speak. This one stops you from practicing your religion. Part of my religion is to share the truth of the Gospel with other people and on terms of freedom of speech, this specifically stops you from speaking. It tells you, you cannot speak in a certain way to a minor. So, like you mentioned, it undermines parental authority. It violates the ability of an individual to provide informed consent. There are a lot of legal issues there, but if you just think about it in basic real life terms, it just makes no sense. I mean, minors can’t go to a rated R movie without an adult, but they can apparently be allowed to make life-changing decisions on sexuality without the ability to receive input from anyone who might have their best interest at heart or anyone who might be older and wiser, even if the minor wants that advice.

I mean, put yourself in a situation in church, for example, and let’s just say that somebody, you know, a minor comes to you. Let’s say a 17-year-old young man comes and says, you know, I think I’m gay. I’m not sure. I’m struggling with this because I feel very confused. I see a lot of social media. I watch movies. I see culture and I’m not sure if that has impacted me, or if it’s just how it was born or what. What am I supposed to do with that? Well, according to this law, you wouldn’t be able to say anything that would say, hey, let’s change it and make sure that you’re on the heterosexual path which is God’s will for your life. This one targets those who would counsel against homosexuality. 

Now, I’ve been going on and on and I’m very passionate about this because it is in violation of God’s standard for Christian life. So I want to tell you that this law specifically—I’m going to give you a statement that it says that should make your blood run cold. It says this, “contemporary science recognizes that being lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender is part of the natural spectrum of human identity and is not a disease, disorder, or illness.” God calls it sin. They say it’s fine. Now, in terms of biblical counseling, there’s tons and tons of Scripture we could pull from, but all we really have to do is look at 1 Corinthians 6. It says a big list of people, meaning the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God. I always tell my kids, I say, look, the world is going to try to trick you. It might be your own heart. It might be other people, but the world is going to try to trick you so be on the alert. Well, here’s what 1 Corinthians 6 says, “Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.” And then here’s the hope that it gives. It says in verse 11, “And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” Think about that. It says, these are the types of people who will not be in the kingdom of God, but there’s hope. God can forgive. God can change so that you can say, that’s in my past. That’s what we do as biblical counselors. We provide the hope of Scripture and this law is specifically telling you that you cannot. 

Dale Johnson: What a great explanation. I think where evangelicals go wrong in this is we start taking their definitions, saying, oh it’s a disease. It’s a disorder. It’s an illness. That’s part of our problem. We’re trying to repair something according to the way they label it. That’s not what biblical counseling does. We have to stand and call it what God calls sexual immorality, which is sin. That’s our primary starting place. And this would preclude our opportunity to do that, or at least our freedom. We should still stand regardless to speak what the gospel says with a compassionate heart, but speaking the truth regardless in love. And here’s the thing, you’ve forced me, Todd, here to pay attention to some of the specific language.

One of the things that’s interesting to me, and you correct me if I’m wrong, maybe I missed it. I don’t know that it speaks specifically about religion really at all. So some people would say, well, is this really an attack on religious liberty because it really doesn’t mention religion? It doesn’t mention even, like, Christianity or anything like that, so you guys are just conflating this. You’re just blowing this up. I want you to help us to answer this question. Is this proposed ordinance or law specifically directed at Christians, and even more specifically, is it directed at biblical counselors? Because some people might say, well, I don’t see biblical counseling anywhere in this ordinance. Help us to understand what this is directed at. 

Todd Sorrell: Well, I learned a long time ago that my personal opinion is not admissible in a court of law. So, if someone were to ask me for the language and I were to fight against the language, I would obviously talk about what the Christian religion and faith practice requires and what it entails. But, to your point, while biblical counseling is unique and Christian, this is such a broad law, the language seems to target what I would call traditional Jewish precepts, past Catholic teaching, historical Mormon rules, Muslim precepts, Buddhist precepts, that all have taught, at least traditionally, against homosexuality. Now, we can argue all day long whether there’s a lot of liberal slant on some of those now and whether they’re going to enforce those, etc. But it technically can apply to pretty much any religion, any faith, any practice that would advise against homosexual or transgender behavior or conduct attitudes. But I think we all know that this is precisely designed to attack the Christian faith and the Christian practice. 

Dale Johnson: And listen, we don’t say all of these things, Todd, to fearmonger, for people to be afraid of what’s happening. Our God is in the heavens and He does what He pleases and we trust Him. He is on his throne today as much as He has ever been so we trust Him in that, but we do have to be vigilant and wise as watchman seeing what’s happening, and then responding appropriately in a way that honors our God as the true King of the world.

As I think about that, it forces us to ask, okay, we’ve heard this. Now, what do we do? How do we respond appropriately as those who love God, who want to love other people well, who believe the Scripture is authoritative and sufficient, and believe it is the hope for all of those who are caught in sin, whether that be homosexual, transgender, heterosexual sin. Christ gives the answer for Hope for all of us who are caught in various sins and we should proclaim that. So what should our listeners do? 

Todd Sorrell: Well, let’s first talk about the backdrop about something you mentioned just a moment ago, and it relates to hope to a degree. First, we do not play on the same playground as the folks who are writing this type of statute, meaning we’re not going to engage in the worldly terms and phrases about disorders, diseases, illnesses. That’s what happened for a long time. Behavior like homosexuality was considered a disorder or disease. The problem is, kind of like alcoholism, there’s no pill. There’s no treatment that takes care of or “cures” that particular disease if that makes sense. So people, when they were using those terms, they were left hopeless, right? They had no hope whatsoever because it’s like, okay, I have a disease. I have this sickness, the world is telling me, but there’s no medicine for it. There’s nothing that fixes this. So what has happened now is the world has decided, we’re not going to call them that anymore. We’re going to call it normal. So instead of leaving the people hopeless, they have given them false hope. Like oh, this is normal. I have nothing to worry about. That’s terrible. That’s why as biblical counselors our job is to call them back to the hope of Scripture.

So to answer the question as to what we specifically should do in response to a proposed ordinance like this, first I will say this: pray. Pray and pray more. James 5 is a great passage on prayer where it says, starting in verse 13 and going down to 20, “Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church,” etc. And then, later in verse 16, it says, “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.” And then jumping down to 19 and 20, think about this in the context of this particular ordinance. “My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.” So we’re supposed to pray for the people who are ensnared in this sin. We’re supposed to pray for the city council members. We’re supposed to pray that this does not pass. Ultimately, we’re supposed to pray that God be glorified, but keep in mind that we are charged here to grab people who are wandering from the truth and bring them back into the fold, and that’s precisely what we’re supposed to do as biblical counselors.

Now, that’s a very practical thing you can do. You can pray. But the second thing you can do is you can go to a website—I’ll give it to you in a second—you can learn more about this law, you can sign a petition, you can contact council members. They give the council members contact information on that website. You want to do it in a respectful way, but you want to let these folks know that not only do you disagree with the law, but let them know they’re going to be wasting taxpayer dollars. And why is that? Because, I guarantee you if this passes there’s going to be lawsuits and that’s going to work its way through the courts, likely up to the United States Supreme Court. That’s expensive. I think the way the United States Constitution reads, that this is an unconstitutional law. That’s my take on this. And if that happens, the city of West Lafayette will waste the taxpayer dollars defending this unconstitutional law. 

To my point about learning more about it, there’s a website, You can check that out. I will say this, I’m a lawyer, but I’m not your lawyer. To all of our listeners, I always have to say that. But I will say, from a legal standpoint, make sure that your consent to counsel form is in good shape. ACBC has a lot of resources on this. We’ve talked about it in the past. I think we did a podcast on it in the past. We have a sample consent to counsel form that specifically and unequivocally couches biblical counseling in terms of our practice of religion. The idea is to make it clear that what we do, we do as ministers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and that stems from our sincerely held religious beliefs. Put that in writing when you are counseling somebody so that if ever there is a question that you violated some law like this or there’s a lawsuit, you hold up that paper that someone signed that says with informed consent that they understand that what you are doing is part of your practice of religion. If you’re counseling with a minor, there are some legal complications with minors signing contracts, being held to, you know, what they’ve written, but there are ways to do it. In addition, you would probably want the parent or some parental authority or guardian to sign as well, but the point is to make it clear to the world that you are practicing the Christian faith when you’re biblical counseling. That will then make clear the distinction and it will make clear the decision that any court later has to make. Do we uphold or infringe upon the right to practice the Christian faith in the United States of America? 

Dale Johnson: Listen Todd, I really appreciate this because, honestly, sometimes reading law is a little bit difficult and even daunting for people who don’t read it very often. It’s like sometimes reading the tax code or insurance policies and all that. It gets convoluted and difficult. Brother, you have made this as clear as a bell and I’m so grateful to have guys like you who the Lord has blessed in your work and you’ve seen this as unto the Lord. Thank you for giving us wise counsel, richly biblical counsel, even points of action that we are called to do. So thank you, brother, so much, for giving us clarity here and giving us some points to engage in. 

Todd Sorrell: It’s always an honor to be on here. Let’s keep in mind that every single thing we do can be an act of worship, whether it’s this podcast or responding to this ordinance, and God will reward.

Helpful Resources

Letter to Our Members on This Ordinance

Ordinance 31-21

Lafayette Citizens for Freedom

Sign the petition against Ordinance 31-21