The Mormon church announced this week they would oppose a proposed ban on conversion therapy in Utah, dealing a potential death blow to the rule and signaling another potential fight if and when the issue re-emerges during Arizona’s 2020 legislative session.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints previously said they wouldn’t stand in the way of Utah banning conversion therapy — a discredited practice where LGBTQ minors enter programs to make them straight — before reversing course this week.
In a statement, the church said the rule prohibiting conversion therapy would fail to protect religious beliefs and doesn’t account for “important realities of gender identity in the development of children.”
There are roughly 2 million Mormons in Utah and they make up 61% of the state’s population, giving the church enormous influence over the state’s politics. The church frequently wields that influence and its opposition to the ban could nix the proposed rule, which was requested by Utah’s Republican Gov. Gary Herbert, himself a member of the church.
The church’s opposition could also have an impact on the future of a conversion therapy ban in Arizona, where 430,000 Mormons make up 5% of the state’s population.
Pima County voted to ban conversion therapy in 2017, but Arizona is one of 32 states without a statewide ban on the practice.
Democratic state Sen. Sean Bowie (D-Phoenix) introduced legislation in 2018 and 2019 to ban conversion therapy in Arizona, but his bills were defeated by the Republican-led legislature.
House Speaker Rusty Bowers (R-Mesa) was among the main opponents of the bill and has gone on the record supporting conversion therapy, even though a litany of medical and mental health experts have criticized the practice as ineffective, harmful and unethical.
The harm caused by conversion therapy is significant; San Francisco State University’s Family Acceptance Project found that 48% of LGBT teens attempt suicide if their parents tried to change their sexual orientation. That number surges to 63% if therapists and religious leaders are involved.
Despite these reports and others like them, opponents of a ban say that to prohibit conversion therapy would be a violation of the country’s freedom of religion and speech and parents’ rights to choose for their children.
“This is about parents having the freedom to seek help for their children,” conservative lobbyist Cathi Herrod with the Center for Arizona Policy told CBS 5.
Now that the LDS church has come out against a ban in Utah, it raises the question of whether they’ll do the same in Arizona. Such a stance would be in line with their history of not only allowing conversion therapy, but actively promoting the practice.
Valley attorney and former LDS member Tyler Allen spent five years in conversion therapy as a teen, an experience he described to CBS 5 earlier this year as “severe intense emotional and mental abuse.”
Allen said he told his bishop he was gay at 14, prompting the church to force him into conversion therapy. “It wasn’t my parents’ choice. It was my church’s choice because my parents had no idea,” Allen said. “My bishop said I’m going to this doctor’s appointment and I need therapy. They had no idea until I was 18.”
No matter how much he prayed not to be gay, it didn’t work. “I needed to prick myself with a needle, I should put a rock in my shoe,” he said, describing tactics his counselor suggested he use to repel his thoughts of same-sex attraction.
“You’re told ‘You’re not trying hard enough! You’re evil, you’re broken, you need to be fixed.’”
Allen became so hopeless and distraught that he almost killed himself to suppress his shame. “I was driving down the freeway, and I was just … done … I got my car up to 110 on the freeway and I was going to crash it … I was so close to not being here anymore,” Allen said.
He said counselors also forced drugs on him, which he refused, pressured him into group retreats, and even separated him from his mom.
“The Mormon Church told me that if I stopped [conversation therapy], I would get excommunicated,” he said. And eventually, he was.
Allen’s experience is not an isolated one. He said he has witnessed therapists use religion to humiliate and silence other people into despair, depression, and even suicide.
The church’s involvement in conversion therapy also made national headlines earlier this year when David Matheson, an LDS member and one of the most outspoken proponents of conversion therapy, renounced the practice and announced he was gay and ready to date men.
“This desire, this need really, to be in a relationship with a man had just overwhelmed everything else,” Matheson told CBS 5.
Matheson admitted he had a lot of “internalized homophobia” and while he acknowledged he had caused a lot of damage, he also blamed his actions on what he referred to as the “shame-based, homophobic-based system” of the Mormon church in which he was raised.
“I was in this ideological prison. One saying being gay is a sin, and the other side, being gay is a disorder,” Matheson said.
Matheson worked at the LDS counseling service Evergreen, which is where Tyler said the church sent him to “pray away the gay.” Evergreen shut down in 2014, and many of its leaders started the new LDS-based gay support group called NorthStar.
Bennett Borden, President of NorthStar, told CBS 5 that his group does not support conversion therapy and didn’t oppose the ban proposed in Arizona in 2019.
It’s unclear whether Utah will cave to the church over the ban; the rule received initial approval from the state’s licensing board in July, after legislators failed to pass a ban themselves. Should the licensing board revoke its green light, the matter would once again revert to Utah state lawmakers, 88% of whom are Mormon.