The Catholic bishop of West Virginia helped restrict a city’s ban on conversion therapy despite LGBTQ advocates’ appeals to ignore the bishop’s objections.
In early May, the Wheeling City Council voted 4-3 to ban conversion therapy for youth. Ahead of the vote, Bishop Mark Brennan of Wheeling-Charleston submitted comments to the Council in which he claimed the ban would infringe on parental rights and force people to accept “transgender ideology.” He later made clear he opposed conversion therapy.
The bishop’s appeals were successful as the ban was narrowed from disallowing any conversion therapy practices to disallowing them only for “medical or mental health professionals.” “Parents or legal guardians, a clergy member or religious counselor who is acting in a pastoral ore religious capacity” would be protected if trying to change a minor’s sexual orientation and/or gender identity, reported Metro News. Mayor Glenn Elliott explained the change:
“‘We took steps to make sure that what we passed was limited to licensed medical or mental health professionals providing such therapy. We don’t want to step inside living rooms and households and conversations that parents have with kids. We don’t want to step in front of pastors or priests on Sundays.'”
Brennan issued a statement thanking the City Council for weakening the ban, saying, in part:
“I stated to the City Council that I found the ordinance deeply flawed for a number of reasons. I thank the Council for reconsidering the ordinance’s language and for focusing it more properly on health care professionals. . .A ban on the practice of conversion therapy by professional counselors, physicians and psychiatrists is more appropriate and is acceptable to me and many parents. I applaud the Council for listening to our voices.'”
The bishop’s initial comments in late April prompted negative reactions from local LGBTQ advocates. Andrew Schneider, executive director of Fairness West Virginia, wrote in an op-ed for The Intelligencer criticizing Brennan for sowing confusion about “what conversion therapy is and what the ordinance will do.” Schneider wrote, in part:
“This proposed ordinance isn’t about forcing anyone to agree with a political agenda, and it’s not about infringing on a family’s privacy or freedoms. This ordinance is about protecting LGBTQ youth from abuse. . .Too many families have been tricked into believing the lie that their kids can be changed. . .
“I want to live in a world where we protect all children from abuse, and that means protecting LGBTQ kids from the dangerous and discredited practice of conversion therapy. I hope the Bishop takes some time to learn more about conversion therapy and to listen to the stories of young people like Alana Chen.”
(Alana Chen was a young Catholic woman in Colorado who died by suicide after being forced to undergo conversion therapy efforts from pastoral ministers.)
Another op-ed in The Intelligencer challenging Brennan was from Rev. Erica Harley, pastor of Vance Memorial Presbyterian Church. Harley wrote, in part:
“I know Mark Brennan and I know him to be a good and decent man. We have worked together on several interfaith projects, including the Bishop’s recent, church-based initiative to confront domestic violence, a cause near and dear to my heart. However, clearly conversion therapy is one area where not only the Bishop and I disagree but so do our respective faith traditions.
“People of good faith can surely disagree and still be people of good faith but on this matter the stakes are simply too high for those of us who realize the dangers of conversion therapy to keep silent. . .
“Again, conversion therapy is a dangerous practice that is killing our kids. It has no place in therapeutic practice nor in religious community. It has no place in the city of Wheeling or the state of West Virginia. We can put an end to the practice of conversion therapy in our fair city and demonstrate overwhelming concern and support for our LGBTQ friends and neighbors.”
The City of Wheeling has taken a step forward in passing a partial ban on conversion therapy targeting youth. It is unfortunate that the ill-founded interventions of a Catholic bishop prevented that ban from being more comprehensive and more able to save LGBTQ youths’ lives and wellbeing.
—Robert Shine (he/him), New Ways Ministry, May 17, 2022