Utah lawmaker warns against upsetting delicate balance of proposed conversion therapy ban — one the LDS Church has agreed not to fight

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Equality Utah Executive Director Troy Williams talks about legislation being introduced at the Utah Capitol to ban conversion therapy on Feb. 21, 2019.

Utah House members weighing a proposed conversion therapy ban are suggesting significant changes to the bill, even as its sponsor warns altering “one semicolon” could threaten the hard-won coalition that has formed around it.

The legislation, unveiled last week during a news conference hosted by Equality Utah, is the culmination of talks between LGBTQ advocates, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the lawmakers who will guide it through the Legislature. Following the negotiations, the church agreed not to oppose the effort to prevent state-licensed therapists from trying to alter a minor’s sexual orientation or gender identity or to eliminate related attractions, behaviors, feelings and expressions.

The language of the bill, HB399, is carefully constructed and matches what 15 other states across the nation have already passed, except for some wording added at the request of the LDS Church, a University of Utah law professor testified during a Friday hearing.

“Before the first of these laws was passed 10 years ago, it took another 15 years before that for lawyers to work with all of the nation’s leading medical and mental health organizations ... to make sure that they were getting the language right,” Clifford Rosky, a constitutional law professor who also sits on Equality Utah’s advisory board, said.

But Utah Rep. Karianne Lisonbee on Friday voiced concerns that Rep. Craig Hall’s bill is too proscriptive as written and could limit a therapist’s ability to speak freely with a client. Rep. Brady Brammer, too, said he was worried about free speech implications, and both he and Lisonbee have proffered substitute bills that would narrow the definition of “conversion therapy.”

Hall defended his bill against proposed alterations Thursday evening during a spirited conversation with Lisonbee, Brammer and House Majority Leader Francis Gibson in a nearly empty House chamber. In the discussion — which was loud enough for a reporter working in the chamber gallery to overhear — Hall said rewriting the legislation could endanger the accord reached between Equality Utah, the LDS Church and other involved groups.

Hall said changing "one semicolon" in the language would be risky and could push the LDS Church to declare opposition.

“The only way that this bill can possibly pass is if I get multiple sides together and support the bill,” Hall, R-West Valley City, said.

When asked about these remarks Friday, Hall said he’s confident lawmakers will find language that will work for everyone.

“We have a lot of organizations that have worked on this bill, and when groups come together and agree ... sometimes we feel a little territorial about the perfection of the bill,” he said. “But frankly, amendments to the bill, substitutes to the bill are part of the legislative process.”

A wide array of groups — the Human Rights Campaign, The Trevor Project, Encircle, Mormons Building Bridges, American Civil Liberties Union of Utah, Utah Psychological Association, Utah PTA, Utah Suicide Prevention Coalition, to name a few — have signed on to the bill, and Gov. Gary Herbert has also lent his support to the language in HB399, Hall said.

If the bill were to change, Hall said, it would mean running the new wording past all of these groups again.

During a House Judiciary Committee meeting Friday, lawmakers were generally sympathetic to concerns about conversion therapy — a widely discredited practice that has been linked to depression and risk of suicide among minors. Commenting on the practice this week during his monthly news conference at KUED, Herbert said “some of the things we’ve done, particularly to young people, seem to be barbaric.”

However, legislators have disagreed over how to limit the practice.

The substitute offered by Brammer, R-Pleasant Grove, would strike much of Hall’s language and replace it with a prohibition on shock therapy or other practices causing “physical discomfort.”

Advocates have said those methods are largely eradicated, and most conversion practices today take the form of talk therapy, which can also be emotionally and psychologically scarring.

The version submitted by Lisonbee, R-Clearfield, would remove wording that bans efforts to change behavior and expression, while laying out a prohibition on promising to help someone change sexual orientation and gender identity.

Rosky said both substitutes were problematic and probably wouldn’t be strong enough to clamp down on conversion therapy in Utah.

For instance, Lisonbee’s bill clarifies that the ban doesn’t stop a therapist from exploring a client’s assumptions and goals and “maximizing their self-determination” by letting the patient “decide how to self-identify.” But the idea of “self-determination” gets tricky when it comes to children, who aren’t of age to consent to medical treatment, Rosky said.

“When we have a treatment that is rejected as harmful and ineffective, it’s just not appropriate to speak of self-determination in this context,” Rosky said.

A spokesman for the LDS Church had no comment on either of the substitute bills. Meanwhile, Hall said he is cautiously optimistic that he will get the committee to pass out his version of the legislation.

Friday morning’s hearing time expired before committee members could hear from the public or take a vote on the bill. Lisonbee, the panel’s chair, said another bill hearing will be scheduled for next week.

Troy Williams, executive director of Equality Utah, said he left Friday’s committee hearing encouraged.

“It’s clear we share a common goal of keeping young people safe from harm. I’m increasingly confident that we can work with lawmakers in both chambers to craft a bill that will save LGBTQ youth from suicide,” Williams said.