Anti-gay views of Madison County Mental Health Board nominee cause flap

A nominee to a Madison County board that oversees mental health efforts is causing concern for some in the community because of his conservative views on homosexuality and transgender issues.

If Madison County Board members approve, the Rev. Robert Weise, along with three other nominees, will be appointed to the Mental Health Board at the county’s March 21 board meeting.

Established in 1966, the Mental Health Board provides funding for services that support people with mental illness, developmental disabilities and substance abuse problems. The seven volunteer board members help allocate funds from the board’s budget — just less than $3 million in 2018.

Republican County Board Chairman Kurt Prenzler chose to nominate new appointees instead of reappointing the existing members when their terms expired in December. The chairman has the authority to choose new appointees, but they must also be approved by County Board members.

Madison County Chairman Kurt Prenzler BND file photo

Prenzler’s nominee is a professor emeritus at Concordia Seminary, an institution that prepares students to become leaders in the traditional Lutheran assembly known as the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.

The chairman came to know and admire Weise through his radio segments on KFUO radio, a Christian radio station broadcasting out of St. Louis. Prenzler asked Weise, an Edwardsville resident, to serve on the board.

Weise is “known to be a very honorable man,” Prenzler said, adding, “I’m convinced he’s never discriminated against anyone for any reason.”

Though the chairman said he has not “had a chance to do research” on Weise’s views, he said Weise is “a very intelligent man” who can bring a different perspective to the board.

“I think it’s healthy to have a change of eyes, so that’s what I’m looking for,” Prenzler said.

Weise does not agree “theologically” with homosexuality or transgender people, he told the News-Democrat in a phone interview Monday.

The Rev. Robert Weise Provided

“We don’t agree with that particular lifestyle. We say that’s contrary to the word of God,” Weise said.

Weise went on to say it’s important to discuss the difference between “reality” and “feelings” regarding what gender someone identifies as.

“Feelings don’t make you man or woman,” Weise said.

On the issue of gay marriage, Weise says he doesn’t agree with it “biblically,” but he teaches his students “it is what it is, and you have to learn to deal with that.”

“In that context, the law is the law,” Weise said. “But you have to listen to people who struggle with this.”

Sexual orientation differs from gender. Sexual orientation is a person’s sexual preference, or lack thereof. Gender is whether a person identifies as male, female or another identity, regardless of their biological sex or sexual orientation.

If someone is struggling with their identity, be it gender or sexual, Weise said a recommendation of “reparative therapy” could be discussed with a physician. Reparative therapy, also known as conversion therapy, is a psychiatric treatment aimed at changing a person’s homosexuality into heterosexuality.

The American Psychiatric Association opposes conversion therapy because it treats homosexuality as a mental health problem, according to the association's website.

In 2016, it became illegal in Illinois for mental health providers to practice conversion therapy with people younger than 18 years old.

The association maintains "heterosexuality and homosexuality are normal expressions of human sexuality," and says conversion therapy has "serious potential to harm young people because they present the view that the sexual orientation of lesbian, gay and bisexual youth is a mental illness or disorder, and they often frame the inability to change one’s sexual orientation as a personal and moral failure."

Weise’s beliefs are causing concern for some members of the community, including Jessica Ellison Thomas, of Alton, a Democratic County Board candidate for District 5.

Jessica Ellison Thomas Provided

“I think that anybody who goes to the county who’s looking for mental health services, if they happen to be part of the LGBT community, they might question (Weise’s) ability to make a decision that actually helps the members of that community,” Thomas said.

But Weise says his interest in joining the board is solely “in taking care and serving people.” He said he is willing to talk with and listen to people who aren’t heterosexual or cisgender — the term for a person whose gender identity matches their sex at birth.

“On the Mental Health Board, you’re listening and serving people and helping them through their struggles. You shouldn’t be mixing oil with water,” Weise said. “There’s a reason God gave us two ears and one mouth. You have to help those people who are struggling with things in their life. You have to help them with whatever identity they’re struggling with.”

Thomas says while she appreciates Weise's openness and believes people can separate their beliefs from their professional opinions, she is also concerned about whether Weise is the most qualified person for the position.

“He’s had plenty of religious experience, but no mental health experience,” Thomas said. “There are plenty of health care professionals in this area. I’m sure there are plenty of qualified people who have an interest in serving on the Mental Health Board.”

Weise holds a master’s degree and a doctorate from the University of Illinois. He also holds a bachelor’s degree from Eastern Illinois University and a Master of Divinity from Concordia Seminary. He focused on zoology, clinical pathology and bioethics in his studies. Weise says he has experience working with young men and women who were affected by HIV or AIDS, some of whom were in psychiatric care.

Weise isn’t the only religious leader being appointed to the board. Ben Tolly is the superintendent of the Gateway Conference of the Free Methodist Church, an Illinois-Missouri conference that helps churches grow. He said one of his current projects is helping a church transition into a congregation that focuses on helping refugees.

Tolly said he provided spiritual support to people struggling with addiction through the church he founded, The Bridge in Edwardsville, though he has no clinical mental health experience.

He is neighbors with Prenzler, who approached him about joining the board, Tolly said. As a member of the board, Tolly said he hopes to help people identify mental illness and address it early on.

“If you can identify it sooner and get them the proper help, I think society is stronger in the long run,” Tolly said.

Like Weise, Tolly is also a leader in a conservative church with set beliefs on homosexuality. Tolly said his beliefs will not get in the way of his desire to help people.

“I want to make sure everybody is getting the very best assistance they need in order to live the life that allows them to thrive. That’s all I’m concerned about,” Tolly said. “We think there’s a certain way to live life, but by no means do we think it’s OK to denigrate a person.”

The Mental Health Board does allocate funds to some faith-based organizations, said the board Executive Director Jennifer Roth, but those services do not discriminate based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

“The folks we fund serve everyone regardless of sexual orientation. They are specially trained to deal with these special issues, and no one we fund would refuse services,” Roth said. “We do fund faith-based organizations, but it is very clear that there is no proselytizing or expectation or demand of religiosity to receive services.”

Roth declined to comment on the new nominees’ qualifications, saying she does not have any “personal or professional” knowledge about them, adding the chairman does not consult with her about his choices. Roth did say she asked the chairman in November to reappoint the five existing board members.

“The five I have are fantastic, wonderful residents of Madison County, representing all the populations and geographic regions we serve,” Roth said. “We just have a good group of people.”

Postponed vote

The appointments of Tolly, Weise and two other members came up for a vote at February’s County Board meeting, but they were postponed until March.

Lisa Ciampoli, a Republican board member from Collinsville, motioned to postpone the vote until March’s meeting because of confusion with the appointment schedule.

District 25 Madison County Board Member Lisa Ciampoli (R-Collinsville) Provided

The Mental Health Board appointments should be staggered so there is a combination of newer and more senior members, the board’s executive director said, citing the Illinois Community Mental Health Act.

“Somewhere along the line, that was not handled the way it should have been,” Roth said, and four appointments started coming at once.

Helen Hawkins, a Democratic County Board member from Granite City, expressed concern at February’s board meeting about replacing four members all at once, saying it could cause instability.

Roth said she and the state’s attorney, Tom Gibbons, have been trying to find out when the half-century-old board went off-kilter in its appointment rotation, but they haven’t been successful so far. They continue to explore ways to get the appointment schedule back on track, Roth said.

Ciampoli said she was also concerned because the proposed appointees did not include a county liaison, which is also required. The county chairman has not yet identified a candidate for that position.

The next Mental Health Board meeting is March 14, a week before the County Board meeting. The January and February meetings of the Mental Health Board were both canceled because of uncertainty as to whether the current board members could legally continue to serve. Roth said the current board members will continue to serve through the March meeting with support of a legal opinion from Gibbons. If the new appointees are approved, they will take their places at the Mental Health Board meeting in April.

Meantime, Ciampoli and Prenzler continue researching the appointees.

“Some seem good, and some I would caution. Until I talk to them, I don’t want to pass judgment,” Ciampoli said. “I want to make sure I know what their doctrines are and what their beliefs are.”

Prenzler said he stands behind all his chosen appointees.

“I’m looking for intelligent people and also looking for integrity in terms of bringing some new eyes to the board,” Prenzler said. “I think in a board it’s healthy to have new eyes, and these are intelligent people.”

Meet the other appointees

The other two nominees to the Mental Health Board are David Nosacka, chief financial officer for the Southern Illinois Division of the Hospital Sisters Health System (HSHS), and Jacquelyn Clement, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville professor emerita of primary care and health systems nursing.

Nosacka, an Edwardsville resident, has worked for more than four years at HSHS, which has hospitals in O’Fallon and Highland, among other southern Illinois locations.

He said he has “gotten to know a lot of people in the community in the short time” he’s lived there, including the County Board chairman.

“He (Prenzler) knew I was in health care. So we saw each other recently at a social event, and he said there were some open spots on the Mental Health Board, and (asked) if I knew anyone who was interested,” Nosacka said. “So I self-volunteered.”

Nosacka said his children are “very socially minded” and inspired him to become interested in the issues they care about, including mental health.

“To me it’s beyond just work. This is something I’m interested in doing as a community-based approach to support the community I live in,” Nosacka said.

Nosacka said the hospitals he oversees have plenty of patients come through the emergency room in a mental health crisis because they have nowhere else to go.

“Mental health is a daily thing we talk about because of the scarcity of resources,” Nosacka said. “There’s such a large, unmet need in this patient population, and when they don’t have anywhere else to go, we’re their safety net.”

Clement, the other nominee, did not immediately reply to a request for an interview, though her biography page on SIUE’s website indicates she has degrees from the University of Missouri-Columbia (family nurse practitioner, 1996); University of Texas-Austin (PhD, 1993), Southern Illinois University Edwardsville (master of science in nursing, 1979); University of Washington (bachelor of science in nursing, 1974); and a diploma from St. Luke’s Hospital School of Nursing.

Clement also has clinical experience in advanced family nurse practice and critical care.