It is hard to know where to start with the story about a religious group threatening to sue the state over a rule prohibiting those ministering to children in juvenile detention facilities from making anti-gay comments to them.
However, a good place might be with the First Amendment, a marvelous grant of freedoms that is unfortunately being called upon to do lots of nasty work these days.
The First Amendment absolutely protects the minister in this case, David Wells, if he wants to stand outside the detention center and preach against gay sex. He can print leaflets making his point and distribute them in the public square, expound his beliefs and teachings on the Internet and, of course, preach to a congregation on the topic.
However, the children in juvenile detention are not there by choice. They are there at the insistence of and under the authority and care of our government. They are not out in the public sphere where they can change channels, go to another web site or easily seek out differing points of view if they are frightened, confused or offended by a message. The government has not only the right but the responsibility to set guidelines for what staff and volunteers can say to them. In the commonsense language of the policy in question here, "each juvenile under the jurisdiction of the Department for Juvenile Justice shall have the right to live in an environment free of harassment and discrimination."
That policy arose about a year ago to comply with the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003, which forbids any form of sexual abuse or harassment by those who interact with inmates. In a July 7 letter, the superintendent of the Warren Regional Juvenile Detention Center in Bowling Green said that Wells could no longer volunteer there "due to your decision, based on your religious convictions, that you cannot" comply with the policy. It is this letter that brought down the wrath of Liberty Counsel, with offices in Orlando, Fla.; Washington, D.C.; and Lynchburg, Va., in the form of a five-page letter threatening to sue the department unless the volunteers are reinstated.
There is no question that some of the children in juvenile detention have been victims of or have performed horrific acts of sex abuse. But that abuse is horrific because it's involuntary and visited upon a child. It is horrific and wrong regardless of the genders involved. It's disturbing that the pastor of the church with which Wells is affiliated seems to see some special, worse evil in abuse at the hands of another person of the same sex. Many youths in custody need to be educated about "unnatural affection or, as it's cataloged in the Scripture, sodomy," J. Dale Massengale, pastor of Pleasant View Baptist Church in Breckinridge County, told reporter John Cheves.
Well, no. They need to know that forcing sex on someone, anyone, is wrong.
Young people are at particular risk of depression and suicide, and LGBT kids are three times more likely to attempt suicide. In this light, well-intentioned communication of deeply held beliefs that being gay is "unnatural" to kids in juvenile detention can't be brushed off as harmless if excessive proselytizing.