Liberty Counsel is using right-wing evangelical media to amplify its fights against conversion therapy protections

Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

Extreme anti-LGBTQ group Liberty Counsel has turned to and shaped right-wing evangelical media coverage of conversion therapy, pushing misinformation about the practice as it lobbies against and pursues legal challenges to policies protecting LGBTQ people from it. 

Conversion therapy seeks to change the sexual orientation or gender identity of LGBTQ people. All forms of the practice, from talk therapy-like sessions to shock and aversive treatments, have been thoroughly discredited, and all major medical associations agree that sexuality and gender identity cannot be forcibly changed. According to the American Psychological Association, negative side effects of conversion therapy can include anger, anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation. Media Matters has created a guide explaining how media and journalists can avoid spreading misinformation about the practice.

Liberty Counsel has used right-wing evangelical media to spread misinformation about conversion therapy

Liberty Counsel has used right-wing evangelical media such as the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) and American Family Association’s radio network, American Family Radio, to promote its conversion therapy court cases and policy positions and spread misinformation.

Liberty Counsel regularly uses CBN News to disseminate its messaging. CBN is a large and established conservative evangelical media empire that includes web content, radio stations, TV programming, and others. CBN’s TV shows have featured figures associated with Liberty Counsel such as founder and chairman Mat Staver. Its website regularly quotes him as well, including regarding his advocacy against conversion therapy protections. When referring to a California bill that would have categorized conversion therapy as fraud, Staver told CBN News that “Jesus Christ can change anybody” and that the bill would “allow someone to go down a road that is dangerous or even harmful.”

In June, CBN program CBN News featured Liberty Counsel Assistant Vice President of Legal Affairs Roger Gannam, who CBN News has quoted in the past and featured on its TV programming. During the interview, Gannam claimed that “the term conversion therapy” is a “political term” and “a euphemism that's intended to evoke images of involuntary shock treatment in a church basement or something ridiculous like that.” He also questioned whether shock treatment was ever used in conversion therapy. But conversion therapy survivors have given firsthand accounts of physical aversion therapy like shock therapy.

From the June 27 edition of CBN News:

ROGER GANNAM (LIBERTY COUNSEL): Some of the signatories on that letter are our own clients who are Christian counselors who have helped thousands of people overcome and reduce unwanted same-sex attractions and gender confusion. And the point that they're trying to make is that, look, we have a track record. We have actual patients and clients who have benefited from therapy to help them with their unwanted attractions. We've helped them change their lives. We've helped them to live heterosexual lifestyles with strong and healthy marriages.

And so it's really a slander against them to say that this practice is somehow unethical or harmful. And what we have to be aware of is this use of the term conversion therapy. It's a political term, and it's really a euphemism that's intended to evoke images of involuntary shock treatment in a church basement or something ridiculous like that. That even if it ever happened, which is doubtful, it certainly isn't happening in 2019. So the whole idea here is to make illegal the very idea that change is possible, and that's what's so dangerous about a resolution like this. Because even though it doesn't have the force of law, it lays a foundation for future laws to come which ultimately could make it illegal to even have these conversations in the counseling room with someone who really wants to change.

Additionally, Liberty Counsel has collaborated with extreme anti-LGBTQ group Amercian Family Association (AFA) before and uses AFA's radio network American Family Radio to amplify its work. AFA fights against LGBTQ equality and visibility in media and elsewhere. Together, Liberty Counsel and AFA have co-signed letters to the media, organizations, and legislators expressing opposition to LGBTQ equality or whitewashing their extreme work. The two groups have also worked together on a campaign to help parents opt out their children from receiving sex education in schools. Right-wing groups and media regularly demonize crucial sex education and fearmonger about LGBTQ-inclusive conversations in classrooms.

AFA runs a substantial right-wing evangelical media apparatus, including its American Family Radio network (AFR) and news website OneNewsNow. AFR hosts such as Janet Mefferd and Bryan Fischer have a history of pushing anti-LGBTQ narratives and misinformation. Mefferd has linked homosexuality to child sexual abuse, suggested that LGBTQ-inclusive Christianity will destroy churches, and advocated in favor of conversion therap. Mat Staver has joined Mefferd numerous times on both of her radio programs to discuss his anti-LGBTQ policy positions.

On June 27, Liberty Counsel senior litigation counsel Mary McAlister appeared on Mefferd’s AFR program, where, like Gannam, she spread misinformation about conversion therapy. In the interview, McAlister claimed that harmful conversion therapy is “not going on anyway” and that such claims are a “red herring” because “what they engage in is talk therapy.”

And on July 8, Staver appeared on a separate right-wing evangelical radio show, Crosstalk, to attack a California resolution condemning conversion therapy. The resolution did not expand any protections from the practice and is nonbinding but instead asked faith leaders to acknowledge that conversion therapy is harmful and embrace the acceptance of LGBTQ people.

In addition to using evangelical media outlets, Liberty Counsel has its own podcast where it has spread similar misinformation downplaying the dangers of conversion therapy. On Liberty Counsel’s podcast, host Matt Barber has said, “It’s not this parade of horribles. This -- the way that change therapy is misrepresented. Some of these horror camps, electroshock therapy, and lobotomies. That’s just sensationalism. It’s nonsense.”

Adding to the power of right-wing evangelical media outlets like CBN and AFR, larger right-wing platforms like Fox News sometimes help amplify these groups to an even wider audience: Staver has even appeared on Fox News at Night with Shannon Bream and on right-wing host Todd Starnes’ show on Fox’s video streaming platform Fox Nation.

The expansive right-wing evangelical media ecosystem -- which includes a wide variety of platforms including video, TV, websites, and radio -- is a key tool for extreme anti-LGBTQ groups like Liberty Counsel to disseminate messaging and misinformation. The symbiotic relationship between these groups and this ecosystem allows them to reach a broad audience and spread misinformation about topics such as conversion therapy with little accountability and with unchecked rhetoric.

Liberty Counsel is engaged in several court cases against conversion therapy protections

Liberty Counsel regularly lobbies against and pursues legal challenges to policies promoting LGBTQ equality, including protections for LGBTQ youth against conversion therapy. It is engaged in at least three active court cases in Florida and Maryland against local and statewide policies.

Currently, 18 states, Puerto Rico, and Washington, D.C., have laws banning conversion therapy for minors, and many localities across the country have similar protections. As these policies have made their way through state and local decision-making bodies, Liberty Counsel has submitted testimony or sent letters urging lawmakers to oppose such legislation in places such as Massachusetts, New Jersey, Washington, D.C., and California.

In the last three months, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear two of Liberty Counsel’s challenges seeking to overturn conversion therapy protections in New Jersey and California; Liberty Counsel has said it plans to refile the cases in lower courts. The anti-LGBTQ group has also aid it intends to get one of its three other lawsuits in Florida and Maryland to the Supreme Court.

Liberty Counsel filed its case in Maryland on behalf of Christopher Doyle, a prominent conversion therapy proponent who identifies as “ex-gay” and who runs multiple pro-conversion therapy organizations. The group also filed two lawsuits against local ordinances in Florida: one against the City of Tampa and the other against the City of Boca Raton and Palm Beach County. Doyle and two of Liberty Counsel's clients in Florida, Julie Hamilton and David Pickup, have previously appeared on local news outlets, where they spread misinformation about conversion therapy.

Clarification (8/29/19): This article originally stated Gannam's title as “vice president of legal affairs” at Liberty Counsel. Though that is how he was introduced by CBN, his correct title is “assistant vice president of legal affairs.” The piece has been updated to reflect this.