Politics & Policy

Legislating Censorship in California

Flag a gay pride parade in San Francisco, Calif., in 2015 (Elijah Nouvelage/Reuters)
A bill in the state assembly would restrict access to information on marriage and human sexuality.

People have a right to hear all sides of controversial issues and to decide for themselves what they want to believe. They should be free to buy books and attend conferences that address controversial topics. Adults should be permitted to seek voluntary, faith-based counseling services that they believe are in their best interest.

However, some legislators in California want to eliminate your ability to make those decisions for yourself. The state is currently considering a bill that could silence certain speech that doesn’t align with the government’s position on human sexuality. It could prevent people from hearing all the information and coming to their own conclusions about controversial issues.

Specifically, California Assembly Bill 2943 would make “advertising, offering to engage in, or engaging in sexual orientation change efforts with an individual,” connected with the sale of goods or services, unlawful as a type of consumer fraud. The bill defines “sexual orientation change efforts” as “any practices that seek to change an individual’s sexual orientation. This includes efforts to change behaviors or gender expressions, or to eliminate or reduce sexual or romantic attractions or feelings toward individuals of the same sex.” Of course, the bill does not prohibit those psychotherapies that the government believes are intended to affirm rather than change gender expressions or romantic feelings.

So the bill could ban the selling of books — yes, books — whose purpose is to help people with unwanted same-sex attraction or to encourage individuals to feel more comfortable in their bodies. The bill applies to the sale of goods or services, and books are “goods.” On the other hand, some argue that the text only proscribes engaging in certain “practices” or “efforts” with an individual, which implies that the scope is limited to personal services. Both arguments are plausible, but that’s the problem. The text is vague.

The bill could also prevent adults from seeking services such as faith-based counseling. Already, at least one prominent Christian conference has canceled a previously scheduled California event, out of liability concerns arising from the new bill.

Certainly the main goal of the law is to ban voluntary, paid counseling services for adults that the state considers to be efforts to change sexual orientation. So if the bill passes, the state probably will not go out and raid bookstores for prohibited books, even though the law as written could bless such an action.

And it’s unclear whether services that merely accept donations instead of charging fees, such as some faith-based seminars and lectures, could be covered. In light of the risks, it’s understandable why religious organizations might choose to forgo holding events in California when its legislature does not seem to mind blatantly infringing on the freedoms of speech and religion.

It is not the government’s place to stand between you and your access to information. It is not the government’s place to determine what kind of counseling you can seek. Those choices are yours.

Under AB 2943, a wide swath of speech could be considered unlawful merely because of its perspective on a controversial topic. Certain Muslim, Jewish, and Christian viewpoints on sexuality and gender taught could soon be illegal in California, depending on when and where they are expressed. Ultimately, it would be up to the California courts to determine how much censorship the law allowed in practice.

Within the broad religious community, viewpoints and beliefs relating to sexuality and gender vary. This debate should be allowed to continue in California’s synagogues, mosques, and sanctuaries, in public debates, conferences, and books, and in the rest of the public square without intrusion by the state.

It is not the government’s place to stand between you and your access to information. It is not the government’s place to determine what kind of counseling you can seek. Those choices are yours.

The bill passed California’s Assembly and was recently referred to the state’s Senate Judiciary Committee. A hearing on AB 2943 will soon be scheduled. It is possible that the bill could be rejected or amended before being enacted into law. If the California Senate does not simply reject the bill, it should, at the very least, amend it to address the state’s concerns narrowly, avoiding harm to the religious liberty of millions of Californians.

Volumes of case law prohibit government from engaging in viewpoint discrimination in the broad marketplace of ideas, but government intrusion into the sacred arena of personal religious counseling, and then calling such counseling fraud? That is the reason we have the First Amendment.

NOW WATCH: ‘Free Speech Under Attack in California’ 

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