What rights should parents of gay children have in Maryland?

Here we go again. The Baltimore Sun -- the newspaper that lands in my front yard -- recently published a very provocative piece about the next round in our state's battles between conservative religious believers and gay-rights organizations. In this case, the battle is over the work of the "ex-gay" ministries and, in particular, the rights of religious parents who turn to them for help.

Looking at this from a religion-news perspective, the main problem with the story is that the issue of parental rights is never openly discussed. Instead, it is hidden between the lines of this news feature.

First, a word about comments on this post: Please do not click "comment" in order to express your disgust, or support, for whatever you think "ex-gay" ministries teach or do not teach.

Trust me, if you oppose the work of counselors who believe that men and women can modify their sexual behaviors and attractions, especially those whose sexual orientations can best be described as complex and/or bisexual, your point of view dominates this Sun piece. You may be unhappy that the piece does allow one particular counselor to briefly defend his work and that, at the very end of the piece, there is even a positive quote from one of his adult clients. However, this story -- as is becoming the Sun norm on stories about conservative believers -- primarily defines his work in terms of material gathered from his enemies and critics.

Meanwhile, after several decades of covering this issue, I do question the fact that the Sun team consistently reports that this counselor's goal is to "change" the sexual orientation of patients. Just as I have never heard anyone claim that they can "pray the gay away," I have rarely heard anyone claim that there is some kind of simplistic sexual-orientation switch that can be flipped from gay to straight.

This is how the story states the question in the lede:

Christopher Doyle says he doesn't think there is anything wrong with being gay, but he also believes he can help children and others rid themselves of "unwanted same-sex attractions" through therapy sessions in a tidy suburban home in Bowie.

That has made the licensed psychotherapist the target of intense criticism over the years -- so much so, he says, that he closely protects the address of the International Healing Foundation, the nearly 25-year-old nonprofit he runs.

"Unfortunately, we get targeted by activists," Doyle said in the home on a recent morning.

In the latest salvo aimed at Doyle and his practice, gay rights activists in Maryland say they hope to ban clinical therapy for children that is based on the notion that their sexual orientation can change. They hope to build on success banning the practice in other states, and success here in securing same-sex marriage and protections for transgender residents.

Note, in this case, that the word "rid" is not inside the direct quote.

If Doyle is arguing that it is possible for gay or bisexual people who struggle with same-sex attractions to "rid" themselves of all temptation, then he is a very, very rare ex-gay advocate -- especially since he himself is a married man, in a male-female union, who once identified as gay.

A key weakness in this story, from a strictly journalistic perspective, is that Doyle is never really allowed to describe in his own words what he believes about the complex scientific mystery (yes, we are talking about the famous Kinsey Scale) that is sexual orientation. The story -- to its credit -- does admit that the roots of sexual orientation remain unknown.

This story essentially argues that it should be illegal for anyone to expose children to the belief, and debates about relevant evidence, that sexual behavior can be modified. Should the Maryland legislature be the latest to approve a ban on such discussions? Thus readers are told:

Doyle said he has clients who are "LGBT identified and don't want to change," and that he is affirming of their identities. He said he never offers therapies aimed at changing a client's sexual orientation unless doing so is the client's personal goal, and that the International Healing Foundation does not believe "coercing" people is ethical.

With young teen clients whose parents are footing the therapy bill -- at times with the desire to see their child's sexual orientation change -- Doyle says, he makes it clear that the patient will set the therapeutic agenda.

"If you come to therapy, we're going to work on what you want to work on," he said he tells the young people. "If the parents try to push or intervene in that, I make it very clear to them that this is about your son or daughter's goals, and we're not going to have that happen."

At the same time, Doyle said people should have the freedom to leave same-sex attraction behind in favor of heterosexual relationships if they want to, just as he says he did years ago, before marrying his wife.

The story makes it clear that the goal of the legislation is to keep Doyle and counselors who do similar work from working with clients who are not legally adults, in other words young clients who are brought to his office by parents. While government schools in Maryland are offering a progressive, affirming view of gay issues, the legislation would make it illegal for counselors to work with parents who are striving to affirm the religious beliefs that define their home.

Thus, the story faces the challenge -- if the goal is journalism, rather than advocacy -- of exploring the beliefs and arguments of articulate, qualified authorities on two sides of this dispute.

On one side are those who believe that it is crucial for children not to be exposed to the dangerous belief that sexual behaviors and attractions can be modified or even resisted. On issues of sexual orientation and behavior, the state must be allowed to intervene.

On the other side are those who believe that parents have the legal right to bring their own children to religious and secular counselors who believe that sexual behaviors and attractions can be modified or resisted. This view believes that the state cannot overrule parents in moral and religious disputes of this kind.

Want to guess which side -- solo -- defines this Sun piece?

Thinking ahead, as journalists should do, this conflict raises interesting questions:

* Should the Maryland legislature prevent parents from sending their children to schools that teach that sexual behaviors and attractions can be modified or resisted?

* Should the legislature challenge the legal status of schools that teach such doctrines? How about home-schooling?

* Since this question hinges on parental rights, should the legislature make it illegal for parents -- mostly conservative Christians, Jews and Muslims -- who believe that sexual behaviors and attractions can be modified or resisted to legally adopt children in Maryland? Should the state intervene to prevent adopted children from being exposed to the dangerous beliefs and choices of these parents?

Stay tuned.

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