Metro Weekly

Federal judge to decide whether to block South Florida laws banning youth conversion therapy

Conservative Christian therapists argue the bans violate their free speech rights and religious beliefs

Photo: Sander van der Wel, via Wikimedia.

A pair of therapists in Florida have asked a federal judge to issue an injunction preventing the Palm Beach County Commission and the city of Boca Raton from enforcing their laws that prohibit therapists from subjecting youth to conversion therapy.

Robert Otto and Julie Hamilton filed a lawsuit back in June alleging that the county and city bans on conversion therapy infringe upon their First Amendment rights to free speech.

Both Otto and Hamilton have argued that the law essentially gags them and prevents them from counseling youth who are struggling with their sexual orientation or gender identity, for fear that they will be fined or even threatened with a loss of their license.

Horatio Mihet, a lawyer with the conservative advocacy group Liberty Counsel who is representing the two therapists, said that an injunction is necessary to remedy the harm caused by the “intrusion” of the local government into his clients’ practices, reports the Palm Beach Post.

Mihet claims that his clients do not engage in extreme measures such as shock therapy, aversion therapy, or inducing nausea or vomiting to dissuade youth from embracing homosexuality or transgenderism.

But he also says the laws tie therapists’ hands and effectively prevent youth who do not want to embrace an LGBTQ identity from being able to seek help.

But attorneys representing Boca Raton and Palm Beach County say the law does not infringe upon the therapists’ rights, and is intended to protect LGBTQ youth from harm and a series of mental health problems — from depression to suicidal ideation — that they can suffer from if subjected to conversion therapy.

Assistant Palm Beach County Attorney Rachel Fahey says there is nothing in the law that prevents therapists like Otto and Hamilton from counseling or providing “talk therapy” to struggling youth.

But the law intends to put clients in the driver’s seat when it comes to achieving the goals they set for themselves.

For instance, therapists should not inject their own personal beliefs or attempt to sway clients away from embracing an LGBTQ identity if the youth wishes to be more comfortable with it. 

“Sexual orientation and gender identity can’t be changed by a licensed provider,” Fahey said, noting that there is scant evidence showing that conversion therapy actually works.

Most major medical and mental health organizations, including the American Psychological Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Counseling Association, have concluded that conversion therapy is harmful to the mental and emotional well-being of teens who are subjected to it.

Palm Beach County and Boca Raton are among a number of municipalities or counties that have banned conversion therapy on minors in the absence of action by state legislatures. Thirteen states and the District of Columbia have already adopted similar laws.

Furthermore, Fahey notes, the county commission was careful to craft the ban to protect therapists’ free speech rights. For example, no mental health practitioner is banned from publicly expressing support for conversion therapy.

A therapist could also refer a client to religious leaders, who are exempt from the law as long as they’re acting as spiritual advisers rather than as licensed therapists. 

Rosenberg has asked attorneys on both sides to submit written arguments before she decides whether or not to issue a preliminary injunction that would go into effect while the case is argued in the courts. She gave no indication when she expects to issue a ruling.

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