News Analysis

United States: California’s ‘Index’

A new bill could ban some Christian books and teaching

The index Librorum Prohibitorum – the official list of books condemned by the Catholic Church – generally concerned itself with dissident theologians and radical philosophers. In the 20th century, however, it increasingly targeted radical feminists and sexual liberationists, Simone de Beauvoir and André Gide among them.

Pope Paul VI abolished the Index in 1966, but the California state legislature may be preparing to institute one of its own. Assembly Bill 2943 would outlaw “goods or services” intended to “change behaviours or gender expressions, or to eliminate or reduce sexual or romantic attractions or feelings toward individuals of the same sex”.

Proponents have cast the bill as an effort to curb “conversion therapy”: a pseudo-scientific practice meant to change homosexuals into heterosexuals. But many fear that the bill will be used to silence Christian moral teachings.

Orthodox Christians generally do not distinguish between sex and gender. They might urge those grappling with transgenderism (otherwise known as gender dysphoria) to seek treatment from a mental health professional. This would naturally be viewed by the law as attempting to “change … gender expression”. Likewise, traditional Christians maintain that sex is reserved for a husband and wife. Urging a gay person to abstain from sex, which is a pastoral remit of priests, might be deemed an effort to “change behaviours”.

And the definition of “goods or services” is so broad that it may include books. Critics argue that the bill could lead to a wholesale ban on selling any piece of literature that upholds the most fundamental tenets of Christian sexual morality.

The bill also “prohibits mental health providers … from performing sexual orientation change efforts”. This is perfectly understandable regarding conversion therapy itself, but because most priests and pastors offer counselling to their parishioners, the state may decide to class them as mental health providers. Also, “performing sexual orientation change” could include advising those experiencing same-sex attraction to practise celibacy.

Clearly, AB 2943 poses a threat to Christians. But it also endangers the foundations of civil liberties. The California Catholic Conference expressed such concerns in an official notice of opposition, accusing legislators of “seeking to expand the scope of unfair business practices to include matters that are intangible and ideological”. The bill, the bishops said, would place strict restrictions on “expressive speech, arising from personal belief or conscience”: speech that is constitutionally guaranteed in the First Amendment.

The Catholic Church does not endorse conversion therapy because it does not consider same-sex attraction a mental illness that can be cured: only a desire that should not be indulged, because it is not ordered towards procreation. Catholics may in good conscience support a ban on conversion therapy, which has so often led to grave physical and psychological damage.

But even supporters of such a ban should recognise that AB 2943 is not the appropriate legislation to achieve their goal. The bill reaches far beyond mental health care. It could very easily be used to silence critics of the prevailing orthodoxy on gender and sexuality, and to regulate the kind of spiritual direction given by Christian pastors.

The idea of an official government position on sexual morality and “gender identity” – be it progressive or conservative – runs contrary to Americans’ civil rights. The California Senate should consider the implications of AB 2943, not only for Christians, but also for the precedent it sets in restricting the right to free speech for those who hold unfashionable views.