Metro Weekly

Federal judge dismisses lawsuit challenging Maryland’s ban on youth conversion therapy

Liberty Counsel says they'll appeal ruling, alleging ban violates therapists' free speech rights

A scene from the conversion therapy documentary “The Sunday Sessions” – Photo: Richard Yeagley/First Run Features.

A federal judge has thrown out a lawsuit brought by a prominent psychotherapist who is attempting to overturn Maryland’s prohibition on licensed therapists subjecting minors to conversion therapy.

On Sept. 20, U.S. District Judge Deborah Chasanow rejected arguments put forth by lawyers for Christopher Doyle, the co-founder of the National Task Force for Therapy Equality and founder of Voice of the Voiceless, an organization that advocates on behalf of “former homosexuals and people with unwanted same-sex attraction.”

When the lawsuit was filed in January, Doyle and his lawyers from the conservative legal organization Liberty Counsel argued that the ban violated Doyle’s religious freedom and his right to free speech under the First Amendment.

But Chasanow said that prohibiting the practice of the therapy doesn’t prevent licensed therapists from expressing their personal views about the efficacy of conversion therapy to minor clients, reports The Baltimore Sun.

“[Doyle’s] arguments that conversion therapy cannot be characterized as conduct are unpersuasive. During the motions hearing, Plaintiff argued that some therapies, such as aversive therapy, clearly involve conduct and, as such, should be differentiated from talk therapy. However, conduct is not confined merely to physical action,” Chasanow wrote in her ruling dismissing the case.

“Plaintiff asserted at the motions hearing that he wishes to conduct speech-based conversion therapy when the change goal originates with his minor client. If his client presents with such a goal, Plaintiff would presumably adopt the goal of his client and provide therapeutic services that are inherently not expressive because the speech involved does not seek to communicate Plaintiff’s views,” Chasanow wrote. “Thus, Plaintiff’s argument fails to demonstrate how speech therapy is any more expressive, and thus less in the nature of conduct, than aversive therapy.”

Additionally, the law does not have any restrictions on adult patients receiving the therapy.

“During the motions hearing, Plaintiff added to his argument that [the ban] is not narrowly tailored, asserting that the statute fails to differentiate between voluntary and forced change efforts. However, children under the age of 16 do not have capacity to consent to psychological treatment,” added Chasanow. “Children over the age of 16 do not possess ‘the capacity to refuse consultation, diagnosis, or treatment for a mental or emotional disorder for which a parent, guardian, or custodian of the minor has given consent.’ 

“Because Maryland law prevents minors from consenting to therapy in many circumstances, it is difficult to conceive how [the ban] could be modified to allow voluntary conversion therapy while complying with Maryland consent laws and achieving Maryland’s goal of protecting minors. Thus, Plaintiff has not offered a viable alternative to [the ban] that would achieve the narrowing effect he desires.”

Doyle’s attorneys told the Sun they intend to appeal the decision.

Raquel Coombs, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Brian Frosh — who was named in the lawsuit — said in a statement that conversion therapy “relies on the false premise that an LGBTQ individual is broken and must be fixed.”

“Advocates of this type of therapy are selling something that doesn’t make people’s lives better, (but) rather, as the court agreed, is actually harmful to minors,” Coombs said.

Shannon Minter, legal director for the National Center for Transgender Equality, praised the Attorney General’s office for “an outstanding job defending this lifesaving law to protect youth from conversion therapy. They understood why this is so important, and their briefs [and] argument were flawless.”

In a statement on its website, Liberty Counsel argued that the Supreme Court’s decision allowing “crisis pregnancy centers” to masquerade as legitimate abortion clinics (even when they gave false or unscientific information to patients who sought help there) effectively opened the door to overturning all conversion therapy bans in the United States on the basis that such bans stifle the free speech rights of the therapy provider.

“In its decision, the district court ignored the Supreme Court’s decision in National Institute for Family and Life Advocates v. Becerra (NIFLA), which rejected the notion that states can single out the speech of licensed professionals for lesser protection under the First Amendment,” Liberty Counsel writes.

“The district court relied upon the decisions in Pickup v. Brown and King v. Governor of New Jersey, both of which held counseling bans like Maryland’s are permissible under the First Amendment because licensed professionals do not engage in fully protected speech when counseling clients. But in NIFLA, the Supreme Court specifically called out those decisions as incorrectly decided, reopening the door to constitutional challenges of therapy bans.”

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

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