(MONTGOMERY, Ala.) — A newly passed Alabama state law lauded as protection for teenagers at faith-based youth programs was stripped of language that would have restricted sexual orientation conversion therapy following pressure from a conservative policy group with close ties to the bill’s sponsor.
The Alabama Child Residential Abuse Protection Act, HB440, was introduced in the wake of an ABC News investigation detailing serious abuses committed against teens at two youth camps practicing conversion therapy in the state. The bill, which strengthened oversight of faith-based youth residential programs that had previously been exempt from regulation, originally mandated that program operators “not engage in or perform any sexual orientation change effort on any person under 18 years of age.”
That language, as well as a provision prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation, was removed from the bill before it passed the House, sailed through the Senate and was signed by Gov. Kay Ivey. The bill’s sponsor says he doesn’t remember how it happened.
“I do not recall who took it out or how it came out,” Rep. Steve McMillan, a Republican from Baldwin County, told ABC News. “It could have been me, or it could have been the guy drafting.”
According to A. Eric Johnston, however, president and general counsel of the Southeast Law Institute, which provides free legal assistance to “persons, churches and other religious organizations on religious, family and related issues,” McMillan removed the language at his behest.
“There existed other language dealing with reparative therapy (therapy to deal with homosexual issues), cultural sensitivity training, and other objectionable and potentially problematical [sic] requirements,” wrote Johnston in a letter obtained by ABC News. “Representative McMillan readily agreed to remove these and it was not his intention they be included.”
McMillan told ABC News that he and Johnston are “longtime friends” and claimed to have “perfect attendance” at a weekly prayer breakfast sponsored by ALCAP, where Johnston serves as legal adviser. ALCAP is a politically active interdenominational ministry that advocates for a “lifestyle based on biblical standards” and lists “homosexuality” as one of its main areas of concern, alongside “alcohol,” “gambling” and “prescription drugs.”
When asked about Johnston’s letter, McMillan did not dispute Johnston’s version of events and acknowledged that the removal of the language allows conversion therapy to continue in the state “with the permission of the parents.” McMillan stressed, however, that he feels the bill’s other provisions calling for closer supervision of faith-based youth programs are strong enough to prevent the abuses detailed in the ABC News report without explicit protections for LGBT youth.
“I didn’t feel it was necessary to mention a particular group or class because we cover it so thoroughly in other parts of the bill,” McMillan said. “It didn’t have anything to do with sex or gender.”
According to Lucas Greenfield, however, a young man who was sent to two such camps in Alabama by his parents, his sexuality made him a target for abuse.
“[They think] gay is a sin,” said Greenfield, whose testimony about the culture of verbal and physical abuse at those programs led to the conviction of the people overseeing one the camps on charges of child abuse. “Gay is evil. Gay is the worst abomination of God. Gay is horrible.”
Conversion therapy has been dismissed by leading medical and psychiatric associations, condemned by major LGBT rights organizations and banned for minors by nine states and the District of Columbia, with several more states currently considering pending legislation.
The practice still has its proponents, most notably the Family Research Council, a powerful conservative lobbying group that has pushed back against state legislation banning the practice on the basis that “same-sex attractions” are a “mental health issue,” a notion that has been thoroughly rejected by both national and international health organizations, including the World Health Organization.
According to David Dinielli, deputy legal director for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s LGBT Rights Project, the removal of the language leaves more work to be done in the state.
“We’re disappointed to see that bill as signed does not include expressed prohibition against conversion therapy, which is nearly universally recognized to be dangerous, ineffective and indeed fraudulent,” Dinielli said. “We will remain vigilant to ensure that no youth in Alabama is exposed to, let alone forced into, these barbaric and unnecessary practices.”
Rep. Ted Lieu, a Democrat from California who authored the first statewide ban on conversion therapy for minors in 2012, recently reintroduced national legislation that would ban the practice he says is based on “crackpot science.” The Therapeutic Fraud Prevention Act of 2017, which has nearly 100 cosponsors, would empower the Federal Trade Commission to classify conversion therapy as fraud and open up its practitioners to civil litigation.
With Republican majorities in both the House and the Senate, Lieu acknowledged that his bill faces long odds, but he hopes the legislation starts a conversation that makes parents think twice about submitting their children to a practice that, Lieu says, very few people consider legitimate.
“It’s important to simply raise the issue,” Lieu told ABC News. “You have parents, oftentimes, who are really just trying to do the best thing for their kids. They get a shocking revelation one day when they discover their child is homosexual. They don’t know what to do, so maybe they feel guilty or angry or vulnerable, and then you have an organization coming to you and saying, ‘Hey, we can change your kid.’ And parents believe it, without knowing that it actually doesn’t work and ends up being harmful.”
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