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West Lafayette City Council pulls ban on conversion therapy citing legal concerns, approves resolution calling for statewide ban

West Lafayette is set to consider a ban on conversion therapy at its next city council meeting (WBAA News/Ben Thorp)
West Lafayette passed a resolution in favor of banning conversion therapy on Monday (WBAA News/Ben Thorp)

The West Lafayette City Council withdrew a ban on conversion therapy practiced by unlicensed therapists Monday night after months of deliberation.

The ordinance would have included a fine for unlicensed therapists performing conversion therapy on a minor. Conversion therapy is the pseudoscientific practice of trying to change a person's sexual orientation.

City officials chose not to pursue licensed therapists out of concerns that state law would supersede the ordinance.

But the ordinance met with pushback when it was introduced in December by local faith groups, who argued the ban would interfere with religious counseling.

Councilmember David Sanders, who introduced the ordinance, said he met with a pastor of Faith Church to discuss their concerns. Sanders, a Jew, said the pastor promptly tried to convert him to Christianity.

“When I confronted him with a question about whether he was trying to convert me to Christianity he responded, in essence, that whenever he meets a Jew he feels an imperative to convert him,” he said.

Faith Church Pastor Steve Viars, when reached for comment, said that Sanders’ version of the meeting is different than they remember.

Sanders withdrew his ordinance, noting that he had been convinced to spare the city the expense of having to defend it in court. But he underlined that unlicensed therapy was taking place - reading an email he’d received from someone who had experienced conversion therapy while at Faith Church.

“My sessions at Faith Baptist Church were the most hurtful, damaging, and humiliating experiences of my life,” Sanders read. “I was forced to divulge any and all sexual thoughts and keep them in a journal. I was interrogated about my masturbation habits and the sexual fantasies that accompanied them. All of this was performed by an unlicensed therapist and observed by three therapists in training.”

“It has taken years to overcome the shame and self-loathing these sessions cause and I’m still not there yet,” Sanders concluded.

When asked about the letter Sanders shared, Viars wrote “it would be inappropriate and impossible for us to address an anonymous letter,” adding that the church would be “happy to speak to anyone personally who believes they could have been served better.”

One LGBTQ advocacy group, Born Perfect, has noted that bans on unlicensed therapists practicing conversion therapy are on a shaky legal footing because strong religious freedom protections in the U.S.

The group also tracks therapists, licensed and unlicensed, who are associated with performing conversion therapy based on reports from survivors. Born Perfect is tracking 49 therapists in the Greater Lafayette region associated with the practice and 226 statewide.

Councilmember Shannon Kang, who at previous meetings on the ordinance has identified herself as queer, said she still supported the ordinance even after it had been pulled.

“Without legislation like this one we won’t be able to know who these unlicensed counselors are in our community unless we have a ban like this,” she said.

The council did pass a resolution urging the state legislature to adopt a ban on conversion therapy throughout the state, and calling on the Indiana Professional Licensing Agency to adopt rules clarifying that conversion therapy violates its standards of practice.

Council President Peter Bunder, who introduced the resolution, noted that it mirrored a similar resolution passed by Indianapolis in 2021.

“This is our way of expressing concerns about conversion therapy and hoping the state will at some point join with 20 other states to address the issue,” he said.