Court decision could endanger local conversion therapy bans in Florida

Rally for formerly gay and transgender Christians in Orlando on Sept. 14 (photo via screenshot from Facebook)

A federal judge has struck down Tampa’s ban on so-called conversion therapy – a move that could imperil similar ordinances around Florida.

In his ruling, U.S. District Judge William Jung concluded it’s the state’s responsibility, not the city of Tampa’s, to regulate health care.

The Tampa ordinance was challenged by the Liberty Counsel, a Christian conservative legal organization based in Orlando. Mat Staver, the organization’s founder and chairman, predicted the ruling would prove the death knell for similar ordinances in 19 cities and three counties in Florida.

“While striking down the ordinance, the court shredded the arguments used to justify these unconstitutional counseling bans,” he said in a written statement posted on his group’s website. “This ruling dooms every municipality in Florida and is the beginning of the end of more than 50 similar local laws around the country.”

Conversion therapy aims to change a person’s sexual orientation. In 2017, Tampa enacted its ordinance imposing $1,000 fines on state-licensed therapists and counselors for a first offense of using conversion therapy on a minor and $5,000 for repeated offenses.

In their lawsuit, Liberty Counsel cited a 2009 report from the American Psychological Association that found no study confirming either benefits or harm from conversion therapies, which Jung cited in his opinion.

However, as the Phoenix reported last month, on the very first page of the 140-page report, the authors wrote that a “review of the peer-reviewed journal literature on sexual orientation change efforts concluded that efforts to change sexual orientation are unlikely to be successful and involve some risk of harm, contrary to the claims of [sexual orientation change efforts] practitioners and advocates.”

Eighteen states ban conversion therapy for minors. Liberty Counsel’s Staver said the ruling “shows clearly” that those bans will go down now. “The First Amendment will wipe away every one of these speech-restrictive laws.”

LGBTQ officials around the state condemned the ruling.

“This is a harmful decision that puts some of our most vulnerable young people at risk,” said Jon Harris Maurer, Equality Florida’s Director of Public Policy. “The decision for Tampa stands completely alone in its reasoning. Regardless of this decision, experts agree that conversion therapy is a dangerous and sometimes deadly practice, and we know it is still routinely practiced on children and teens in Florida. We support the City of Tampa’s leadership in protecting minors, and the Florida Legislature can and should also act immediately to protect children from this fraudulent practice.”

“Medical professionals have testified that so-called conversion therapy is harmful to children,” said Stephen Gaskill, president of the Florida LGBTQ+ Democratic Caucus. “LGBTQ people who have been subjected to it speak of the damage it has done to them. Governments around the country have banned it. It is unconscionable that a judge would strike down this proven fraudulent practice intended to change the core of a human being.”

A June 2019 report by the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law estimated that 16,000 LGBTQ youth between the ages of 13 to 17 will undergo conversion therapy from a licensed health care professional before the age of 18 in the 32 states that, like Florida, allow the practice.

Tampa officials say they’re pondering whether to file an appeal.

“The court did not rule on the constitutionality of the city’s ordinance prohibiting conversion therapy,” said City Attorney Gina Grimes. “Instead, it found that the state’s health care regulations prevent municipalities from regulating this type of counseling.”

Judge Jung’s order was released last Friday.

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