Kelly Johnson, wife of Speaker of the House Mike Johnson (R-La.), runs a Christian counseling organization named “Onward Christian Counseling,” presumably after the 1865 hymn “Onward Christian Soldiers.” The Christian Nationalism flavor of this well-known hymn is an apt match to the type of counseling Johnson provides.
Onward Chrisitan Counseling specializes in covenant marriages and “advocates the belief that homosexuality is comparable to bestiality and incest,” according to its operating documents. A covenant marriage is a legal form of marriage in which the marrying couple agrees to more limited grounds for divorce – typically abuse, a felony with jail time or adultery. Conversion therapy is any attempt to change a person’s sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.
Kelly Johnson is not a therapist – she is a “pastoral counselor.” There is no asterisk on the website, which was taken down two days after the Huffington Post ran a story about it, that alerts potential clients that the center is not a certified therapy practice. In fact, Kelly is heavily credentialed on the site, listed as a “Licensed Pastoral Counselor, a Certified Temperament Counselor, Professional Clinical Member of the National Christian Counselors Association, President of Onward Christian Counseling Services, LLC, and CEO of Onward Christian Education Services, Inc.” Nothing says, “Oh, by the way, these certifications are not medical certifications, they are religious certifications.”
Conversion therapy: a discredited practice
Conversion therapy is opposed by all major medical organizations and prohibited in 20 states. Yet, Christian Nationalists and their allies in extreme religious groups, believe that individuals can change their sexual orientation or gender identity, either through prayer or other religious efforts, or through so-called “reparative” or “conversion” therapy.
According to a recent report by the Williams Institute of Law at UCLA, of the LGBTQ+ adults in the U.S. who have experienced conversion therapy, an estimated 81% received it from a religious leader and 31% received it from a medical professional. The National Alliance on Mental Illness clearly states, “Conversion therapy is a discredited practice focused on changing an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity. It is not an evidence-based treatment and is opposed by all major medical organizations.”
According to multiple sources, minors are especially vulnerable to these types of “therapy” due to the continuing discrimination and societal bias against LGBTQ+ people. Survivors of conversion therapy experience much higher levels of depression, anxiety, drug use and homelessness, as well as significantly higher rates of self-harm and suicide.
Limited bill fails in Louisiana
Although many states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico have regulations in place to protect youth from conversion therapy, the Johnsons’ state of Louisiana isn’t one of them. Just last year, a bill that proposed only a partial ban of conversion therapy failed in the state legislature. State Rep. Raymond Crews of Bossier City, one of the legislators who voted against the bill, said the legislation was “discriminatory because it didn’t include language protecting heterosexual kids from conversion therapy aimed at making them gay.”
Maybe that’s because there is no such thing as therapy to convert a straight person into a queer person.
But wanting to make queer people straight is just a drop in the Johnsons’ homophobic bucket. According to the Onward Christian Counseling bylaws, “[the organization believes] and the Bible teaches that any form of sexual immorality, such as adultery, fornication, homosexuality, bisexual conduct, bestiality, incest, pornography or any attempt to change one’s sex, or disagreement with one’s biological sex, is sinful and offensive to God,”
This language is not just used in the Onward Christian Counseling bylaws. The very same language is found in a document created by Freedom Guard, a nonprofit group founded by Mike Johnson that focuses on “contending for the Christian faith through strategic litigation.” Mike Johnson was also the notary for his wife’s bylaws. And although not required by law, he signed them as well. (The Freedom Guard’s website became inactive a few days ago.)
LGBTQ+ youth not protected in Louisiana
And how are queer people faring in the state of Louisiana? The Trevor Project’s 2022 state-by-state National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health notes that nearly 50% of Louisiana LGBTQ+ youth seriously considered suicide. 68% wanted mental health services but were unable to access them. 20% had either been threatened with or experienced conversion therapy. And 74% said they had experienced discrimination based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. The Trevor Project survey also found that “LGBTQ youth who experienced anti-LGBTQ victimization, including being physically threats or harm, discrimination, or conversion therapy, reported more than twice the rate of attempting suicide” than those who had not.
In Matthew 18:10, Jesus says, “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.” This sentiment seems to be missing in the Johnsons’ pastoral counseling.
If Kelly and Mike Johnson were politically and financially unconnected religious counselors doing harm, it would be upsetting enough. But the Johnsons’ close ties to Alliance Defending Freedom and First Liberty (two of the major litigating organizations in the Christian Nationalist Shadow Network pushing to overthrow our democracy) and his new position in the House put significant power behind their anti-LGBTQ+ agenda.
AU Protects LGBTQ+ people from religious extremism
Americans United defends LGBTQ+ people and other minority groups from attacks by religious extremists every day. Queer people have just as much right as anyone else to live openly without fear of discrimination or mentally damaging pseudo-counseling. The separation of church and state protects minorities like LGBTQ+ people from these kinds of religiously motivated acts of discrimination and harm.
Thomas Jefferson said in Notes on the State of Virginia, “The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”
It also does none of us injury to let people love who they love and live openly as themselves.
Photo: Screenshot from Fox News Channel