Metro Weekly

North Dakota approves rule barring social workers from subjecting clients to conversion therapy

New rule protects LGBTQ people of all ages, not just youth, from being subjected to sexual orientation change efforts.

north dakota
Photo: Jon Tyson, via Unsplash.

Last week, North Dakota lawmakers on the state’s Administrative Rules Committee narrowly voted to bar licensed social workers from engaging in conversion therapy, or efforts to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

The committee authorized the rule, which was proposed by the North Dakota Board of Social Work Examiners, making it an ethics violation for a licensed social worker to perform conversion therapy.

Because most mental health professionals in North Dakota are licensed social workers, this proposal is much broader, effectively preventing most forms of conversion therapy from being performed on people of any age, not just minors, reports the Grand Forks Herald

In passing the law, the committee was able to protect LGBTQ-identifying people from being subjected to conversion therapy while simultaneously skirting the Republican-led state legislature, which most likely would have blocked such a proposal.

Twenty states and several dozen city, county, or local governments have passed similar legislation prohibiting licensed therapists from engaging in conversion therapy, which has been condemned as ineffective and harmful by almost every major credible medical or mental health care organization in the nation. Past research has shown that those subjected to conversion therapy, particularly as youth, are twice as likely to consider and attempt suicide as peers who weren’t ever subjected to the therapy.

Bianca Bell, a social worker who chairs the North Dakota Board of Social Work Examiners, which proposed the new rule, said she didn’t personally know of anyone practicing conversion therapy on their clients, but the board wanted to enact the ban to protect anyone who might be subjecting their clients to it, just in case.

Importantly for conservatives, the new rule does not apply to clergy members or church counselors who are not licensed by the state, in an effort to avoid being accused of infringing on people’s religious beliefs opposing homosexuality, transgenderism, or same-sex marriage.

“This is within the scope of this organization, and it only applies to this organization. If the members of this committee want to send their kids to their ministers to pray the gay away, they are still welcome to do that. It has nothing to do with social work,” Sen. Nicole Poolman (R-Bismarck) said during debate on the committee. “It has been proven how damaging that type of conversion therapy has been, and they just want to ensure that their members understand that it’s unethical.”

But that didn’t stop Rep. Bernie Satrom (R-Jamestown) from arguing that the rule interferes with religious counseling, adding that “there are some cases where people want to change” their sexual orientation or gender identity.

“There are licensed counselors that are also Christians, and basically my concern in all of this is that we’re telling the Christian counselors ‘you can be a licensed counselor, but you can’t practice your Christianity,'” he said.

See also: Wisconsin governor prohibits government funds from being used to pay for conversion therapy

Rep. Kim Koppleman (R-West Fargo) objected to the rule, claiming it was outside of the committee’s scope. He also protested the rule as one-sided because it does not bar social workers from trying to change a straight person into becoming LGBTQ. But proponents of the rule rejected the notion that conversion therapy is used on people who already identify as heterosexual.

Rep. Dan Ruby (R-Minot) worried that the new rule would prohibit people seeking mental health treatment from getting help. But proponents of the law noted that the rule is written so that clients who are LGBTQ or questioning can seek any kind of mental or physical care they need.

House Minority Leader Josh Boschee (D-Fargo), the sole openly gay member of the legislature, said he was disappointed with some of his colleagues for defending the “harmful” practice of conversion therapy and issuing various objections to the rule. But he was ultimately satisfied that seven of his colleagues eventually sided with him to pass the rule.

“Thank you to the North Dakota Board of Social Work Examiners for restricting licensed social workers in North Dakota from being able to practice conversion therapy!” Boschee said in a statement. “LGBT North Dakotans, especially youth, are safer now as you hold licensees responsible to the NASW Code of Ethics.”

The Trevor Project, the world’s largest suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization for LGBTQ Youth, also applauded the committee’s action.

“This rule change will stop the vast majority of mental health providers in North Dakota from subjecting LGBTQ youth to the dangerous and discredited practice of conversion therapy. This practice is not therapy at all — it’s abusive and fraudulent,” Troy Stevenson, the senior advocacy campaign manager for The Trevor Project, said in a statement. “There is still more work to be done in North Dakota, but this bold action will help save young lives. The Trevor Project is committed to an every state strategy to protect LGBTQ youth from conversion therapy and North Dakota has proven that progress is possible anywhere.”

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