The plight of Brian Tingley (Tingley v. Ferguson), a licensed counselor who has been practicing in Washington state for more than twenty years, demonstrates the importance of language in defending free speech.
Throughout his career in counseling, Brian has helped adults, couples, teenagers, and children identify and achieve the goals that they set for themselves, consistent with their own moral values and religious beliefs. Under Brian’s guidance, his clients have pursued meaningful and positive changes in their lives.
But Brian’s practice is now in jeopardy. In 2018, Washington passed a Counseling Censorship Law that allows government officials to censor private conversations between counselors and their clients.
The Counseling Censorship Law prohibits any conversation between minors and their chosen counselor that seeks to help the client achieve comfort with his or her biological sex or reduce unwanted same-sex attractions. This includes clients who desire this counseling to help them bring their hearts, minds, and conduct in line with the teachings of their faith. If Brian has such discussions with his clients, he faces fines of up to $5,000 per violation, suspension from practice, and even the loss of his license and livelihood.
Alliance Defending Freedom filed a lawsuit on Brian’s behalf at a federal district court, but the court decided to dismiss the lawsuit. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit upheld that decision and inexplicably claimed that the law does not regulate Brian’s speech. ADF is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse that ruling.
The state of Washington describes any counseling that seeks to help people work toward their own goals of becoming more comfortable with their biological sex or reducing unwanted same-sex attraction as “conversion therapy.” Truth, reality, and language dictate otherwise.
Counseling a patient toward embracing an identity inconsistent with biological reality promotes the lie that a man can become a woman or vice versa. This is the truly dangerous conversion therapy rampant in our nation of which we are only beginning to reap disastrous consequences.
Tellingly, the Washington Counseling Censorship Law only prohibits counsel in one direction. The law allows counseling conversations that aim to steer young people toward a transgender identity, but it prohibits conversations that aim to help that same person return to comfort with his or her sex. And Washington is not the only state seeking to censor licensed counselors. In Colorado, ADF is litigating a similar case on behalf of Christian counselor Kaley Chiles.
It may at times seem tedious or trivial, but those committed to speaking and living the truth must not disengage from the conflict over language—whether it be in terms of pronouns, marriage, life, or other fundamental concepts. If we permit those entrusted with authority to fundamentally change the meaning of words, they will inevitably attempt to take for themselves the authority to determine what words cannot be spoken or what words must be spoken.
Words matter. The true meaning of words matters a great deal. Anyone who has seen the documentary What Is a Woman? has witnessed the cringe-inducing awkwardness of people struggling to force the square peg of the English language into the round hole of their ideology. More than just a herculean struggle over semantics, the dispute over words and their meaning is in essence the battle to determine who defines reality.
As Os Guinness eloquently explains in his book The Magna Carta of Humanity:
“Nothing compares with the power of words to convey truth, make promises, build trust, negotiate with integrity, demonstrate loyalty, and so to sustain the rich ecology of a world of truth and freedom—not just between humans and other humans, but between God and humans. Words make worlds. No words, no worlds. Bad words, bad worlds. True and respectful words, a free and a human world.”
To defend our freedom to speak, let us also defend the truth that words matter.