The U.S. Courthouse for the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Mike Stewart)
Bans on the discredited practice of “conversion therapy” in South Florida cannot stand, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit ruled on Friday, striking down regulations that blocked therapists from trying to change a child’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
Under ordinances passed in Boca Raton and Palm Beach County in 2017, people who are licensed to offer professional counseling can be fined hundreds of dollars for practicing conversion therapy on juveniles. But in a 2-1 decision, the 11th Circuit judges found that the regulations violated the free speech rights of two local therapists who challenged the restrictions.
“It comes down to this: If the plaintiffs’ perspective is not allowed here, then the defendants’ perspective can be banned elsewhere,” wrote the two judges in the majority, both of whom were appointed by President Donald Trump. “The people have intense moral, religious, and spiritual views about these matters—on all sides. And that is exactly why the First Amendment does not allow communities to determine how their neighbors may be counseled about matters of sexual orientation or gender.”
During the February arguments in the case, lawyers for therapists Robert Otto and Julie Hamilton stressed that their clients aren’t actively out to change anybody’s sexual orientation or gender identity, Courthouse News reported. In the decision Friday, the judges noted that the therapists have said many of their clients have “sincerely held religious beliefs conflicting with homosexuality,” in which case the therapists can try to “reduce same-sex behavior and attraction and eliminate what they term confusion over gender identity.”
Multiple studies have found that conversion therapy does not work and can be deeply dangerus. Non-transgender gay, lesbian, and bisexual people who’ve gone through it are 75 percent more likely to plan a suicide attempt compared to peers who have not experienced conversion therapy, according to a June study from the Williams Institute at University of California, Los Angeles School of Law.
Virtually every major medical and mental health organization has also condemned it.
“Conversion therapy is a fraudulent practice, plain and simple,” Xavier Persad, senior legislative counsel at the Human Rights Campaign, told VICE News in September.
In a dissenting opinion to the ruling on Friday, Judge Barbara Martin—who was appointed by President Barack Obama—argued that although the instances in which the government is justified in restricting speech are rare, this is one of them.
Boca Raton and Palm Beach County, she wrote, had “validly identified a compelling government interest in protecting minors from a harmful medical practice.”
Twenty states, as well as Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C., have laws on the books that shield young people from conversion therapy that’s being conducted by licensed practitioners, like therapists, according to the Human Rights Campaign. (Faith leaders, who are often not licensed practitioners, are much harder to regulate.) More than 70 cities and counties also have their own anti-conversion therapy laws.
Lawyers for Boca Raton and Palm Beach County are now considering their options, Reuters reported.