When Government Censors Religious Views, It Violates First Amendment
The government shouldn’t prevent Americans from expressing their religious beliefs. But that’s exactly what the state of Washington is trying to do.
Brian Tingley is a licensed marriage and family counselor. For the past 20 years, Tingley’s deeply held religious beliefs have been the source of the guidance he offers his clients, who come to him voluntarily.
Many come seeking Tingley’s advice because his religious beliefs are consistent with their own, and they seek help to align their lifestyle with biblical teachings.
Washington state, however, wants to intervene in these private conversations and rewrite Tingley’s beliefs by telling him what he can and cannot say. State legislators passed a law that restricts counselors from helping people who are wrestling with gender dysphoria.
The state’s counseling censorship law prohibits counselors from engaging in conversations that might encourage a “change in an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity.”
Under the guise of regulating professional conduct, this state law threatens to silence speech based solely on the government’s disagreement with a viewpoint.
The law does so despite a recent holding by the Supreme Court, in NIFLA v. Becerra, that the government may not choose the protection that speech receives under the First Amendment. In that case, the high court struck down a California law forcing pregnancy resource centers to promote abortion because the law unduly burdened protected speech.
Instead of complying with the Supreme Court’s decision in NIFLA, Washington state is attempting to circumvent it by using a new guise and reclassifying therapists’ speech as “conduct,” so that it can be regulated out of existence. In doing so, the state is banning an activity that consists of nothing more than conversation.
Laws such as this that recast speech as conduct are especially concerning at a time when states are weaponizing laws against disfavored parties. That’s what organizations such as Heartbeat International are facing, and why First Liberty Institute submitted a friend of the court brief on behalf of Heartbeat in Tingley’s case at the Supreme Court.
Heartbeat is a Christian organization with a mission to support the pro-life cause through a network of affiliated pregnancy centers. Despite the important work that Heartbeat’s centers do to help women facing unplanned pregnancies, its life-affirming health care facilities recently have become frequent targets of violence from extremist groups such as Jane’s Revenge and overzealous politicians who wish to drive Heartbeat out of business with regulations that suppress free speech.
For example, attorneys general for New York and Massachusetts issued consumer alerts last year targeting pregnancy centers, calling them “fake clinics” and accusing them of employing “deceptive tactics.”
In addition, several state legislatures are threatening pregnancy centers with sanctions by reclassifying their religious speech as “deceptive practices.”
But the Supreme Court repeatedly has told government officials that the First Amendment absolutely prohibits government from regulating speech just because it disapproves of the speaker’s message. In fact, the Constitution finds such viewpoint discrimination so egregious that the Supreme Court says it is automatically unconstitutional, no matter the purposes a regulation may serve.
When the government tells a counselor or religious entity what can’t be said, based on nothing more than ideological disagreement, it has crossed the line and engaged in unlawful weaponization of government against ideological foes.
The Supreme Court should intervene in this case and reaffirm that Americans of all viewpoints have a right to express themselves without fear of government reprisal.
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