Gay conversion therapy advocates heartened by Republican electoral victories

PHOTO: Vice President Mike Pence makes remarks to the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Maryland, Feb. 23, 2017. PlayMike Theiler/AFP/Getty Images
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Advocates of long-discredited gay conversion therapy programs say they are heartened by the election of Donald Trump and are counting on Vice President Mike Pence and congressional Republicans to help fight off efforts to make such programs illegal.

“I certainly hope that this administration will pull back from some of the aggressive activism that the Obama administration engaged in,” said Peter Sprigg of the Family Research Council, a powerful conservative lobbying group in Washington that is active in supporting sexual reorientation efforts.

President Obama's Surgeon General Vivek Murthy publicly stated that “conversion therapy is not sound medical practice” and that such programs “are harmful and are not appropriate therapeutic practices.”

Conversion therapy has been outlawed for licensed mental health providers in California, Oregon, New Jersey, Vermont, Illinois and the District of Colombia, according to the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBT advocacy group.

The Family Research Council and Sprigg have helped to fight legislative proposals in 20 other states that would make gay conversion therapy illegal.

“They certainly should not be outlawed. They certainly should not be prohibited by law,” Sprigg said in an interview to be broadcast this Friday on the ABC News program “20/20” in an investigation of gay conversion therapy programs.

“As a Christian, I believe that the Bible teaches that to choose to engage in homosexual conduct is a sin,” he said, adding that he believes therapy can cause people to make different choices.

The “20/20” report includes revelations of two programs that conducted conversion therapy in Alabama, including one in which Christian pastors overseeing dozens of teens were convicted of child abuse amid stark allegations of beatings administered to teens who resisted efforts to change their sexual orientation.

The camps practicing conversion therapy uncovered by the “20/20” investigation were not operating as licensed mental health facilities and are therefore not covered by laws prohibiting the practice.

At the Republican National Convention last year, delegates voted for a party platform that appeared to tacitly endorse the right of parents to send their teens to conversion programs, supporting the “right of parents to determine the proper medical treatment and therapy for their minor children.”

The party position mirrors the position of the Family Research Council, which considers sexual reorientation therapy mental health care.

“If someone is experiencing something mentally, like same-sex attractions, that is causing distress, then that’s a mental health issue,” Sprigg said.

He said that there is no place for physical abuse in therapy programs.

“The kind of therapy that we support is ordinary talk therapy like anyone would have for any type of psychological issue,” he said.

Sprigg said that his groups does not believe that “same-sex attractions are a choice” but that he also does “not believe that experiencing same-sex attractions is a normal and natural variant of human sexuality.”

He added that he believes Pence will be helpful in any battle with what he called the “gay lobby.”

As a candidate for Congress in the 1990s, Pence’s campaign website included a statement that fueled belief that he was in support of conversion therapies for gay youths.

“Resources should be directed toward those institutions which provide assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behavior,” the website said, under a header reading, “The Pence agenda.”

Asked about the campaign language, a spokesman for Pence said, after publication of this story, that Pence was calling for federal funds to “be directed to groups that promoted safe sexual practices” and said "any assertion that Vice President-elect Pence supported or advocated for conversion therapy is patently false and is a mischaracterization of language from a 16-year old campaign website."

Click here for the full statement.

The Family Research Council is optimistic Republicans will back its position.

“I see it as unlikely that any sort of legislative – federal legislative attack upon sexual reorientation therapy will ... go anywhere," Sprigg said.

The practice however has long been discredited by respected medical and mental health institutions.

In 1973 the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its diagnostic manual, the field’s definitive book of mental disorders.

In 1975 the American Psychological Association said, “Homosexuality per se implies no impairment in judgment, stability, reliability or general social and vocational capabilities; further, the American Psychological Association urges all mental health professionals to take the lead in removing the stigma of mental illness that has long been associated with homosexual orientations.”

And in 1993 the American Academy of Pediatrics denounced conversion therapy, saying, "Therapy directed at specifically changing sexual orientation is contraindicated, since it can provoke guilt and anxiety while having little or no potential for achieving changes in orientation.”

Despite these unequivocal positions from the foremost U.S. mental health organizations, the “20/20” investigation found a cottage industry of so-called conversion camps operating across the country.

To learn more, and hear the harrowing story of how two gay youths escaped such camps, tune in to “20/20” on Friday at 10 p.m. Eastern time.

ABC News’ Randy Kreider, Cho Park, Alex Hosenball and Paul Blake contributed to this story.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to include a statement from Vice President Pence's spokesperson that was provided to ABC News after publication.