Metro Weekly

Christian group sues to overturn conversion therapy bans in South Florida

Lawsuit claims the bans violate therapists' and clients' First Amendment rights, and a host of other laws

Downtown Boca Raton – Photo: AZ’s Reincarnation, via Wikimedia.

Liberty Counsel, a right-wing Christian nonprofit organization, has filed a lawsuit against Palm Beach County and the city of Boca Raton for their bans on underage conversion therapy.

The lawsuit, brought on behalf of two marriage and family therapists in South Florida, argues that the ban violates the free speech rights of Dr. Robert Otto, Dr. Julie Hamilton, and their clients.

By banning the therapy, Liberty Counsel argues that the county and city have discriminated against the therapists’ right to engage in and provide counseling consistent with their clients’ religious beliefs, and their clients’ right to seek treatment to help curb unwanted same-sex attraction or gender dysphoria — in keeping with their religious beliefs that homosexuality and transgenderism are wrong.

“By preventing minors from seeking counseling…such as sexual orientation change efforts, the Ordinances deny or severely impair Plaintiffs’ clients and all minors their right to self-determination, their right to prioritize their religious and moral values, and their right to receive effective counseling consistent with those values,” Liberty Counsel wrote in its complaint, filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida.

The lawsuit alleges that the bans violate the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, as well as the Florida Constitution, their clients’ rights under the Florida Patient’s Bill of Rights and Responsibilities, and Florida’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act. It also alleges that the bans infringe on parents’ right to “direct the upbringing and education of their children, which includes the right to meet each child’s individual counseling, developmental, and spiritual needs.”

In addition, Liberty Counsel argues that the rationale for the bans is flawed, sharing stories of clients that Otto and Hamilton have treated to prove that the therapy can have positive effects on people struggling with unwanted same-sex attraction. It also contends that there are other ways to protect people from fraudulent or deceptive practices — one of the arguments used to justify bans on conversion therapy.

“The City Ordinance falsely asserts that there are no other effective means, including state statutes, to protect minors from the purported harms of [sexual orientation change efforts] counseling,” the complaint reads. “Licensed marriage and family therapists, such as Dr. Otto and Dr. Hamilton, are already prohibited by law from engaging in false, deceptive, or misleading advertisements relating to their practice of marriage and family therapy.

“No compelling government interest justifies the burdens Defendants impose upon Plaintiffs and their clients’ rights to the free exercise of religion,” Liberty Counsel adds. “Even if the Ordinances were supported by a compelling government interest, they are not the least restrictive means to accomplish any permissible government purpose which the Ordinances seek to serve.”

Lastly, Liberty Counsel is challenging the bans on the basis that they constitute an overreach of power by the county and city, and that any ban, or lack thereof, should be decided by lawmakers in Tallahassee.

Liberty Counsel has previously sued the city of Tampa over its conversion therapy ban, making many of the same arguments. In the South Florida case, it is asking for damages (nominal and monetary), and for the court to permanently block the bans from being enforced.

In total, 13 states, the District of Columbia, and 37 municipalities or county governments, including 20 in Florida alone, have prohibited licensed therapists from subjecting minors to conversion therapy. Opponents of the practice argue that the therapy can cause psychological (and sometimes even physical) harm to LGBTQ-identifying youth. Youth who have been subjected to the therapy can also be at higher risk of depression, self-hatred, self-harm, or suicidal ideation. 

Most major medical and psychological associations, including the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association, have come out against conversion therapy. According to a recent report by the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law, an estimated 20,000 LGBTQ minors are likely to be subjected to conversion therapy at the hands of a licensed health care professional in states without bans.

John Riley is the local news reporter for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at jriley@metroweekly.com

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