The sponsor of a proposed ban on conversion therapy in Utah watched colleagues dismantle his bill on Tuesday and replace it with an alternative that he says would do nothing to stop the widely discredited practice of trying to change the sexual orientation or gender identity of LGBTQ youth.
"This bill, substitute 4, just to make it clear, will not prevent conversion therapy," Rep. Craig Hall told the House Judiciary Committee.
But the committee opted to go with the substitute, which the majority of members said would strike a balance between allowing therapists to speak freely and protecting LGBTQ youth from abusive practices.
"In many ways we're trying to thread a needle here," said Rep. Brady Brammer, R-Pleasant Grove.
Troy Williams, executive director of Equality Utah, left the morning hearing fuming about the committee’s decision. The majority of the committee, he said, sided with “quack therapists” and “snake oil salesmen” by approving a version of the bill that would be easily sidestepped by practitioners of “conversion therapy.”
All of the nation’s leading mental health and medical associations, including the American Psychological Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics, have rejected conversion therapy as dangerous and ineffective, and 15 states have banned certain counselors from trying to change the sexual orientation or gender identity of minors. The practice has been linked to suicide and depression, and supporters of Hall’s legislation have framed it as a potentially life-saving legal change.
Hall, R-West Valley City, said that time remains in the legislative session to have “good discussions” with lawmakers and potentially reinsert stronger language into the bill. As initially proposed, the legislation, HB399, would have prohibited state-licensed therapists from practices aimed at changing the sexual orientation or gender identity of a minor.
The legislation was originally negotiated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which took a neutral position on Hall’s bill. It is not clear how the changes in the legislation may affect that, and a church spokesman had no comment on Rep. Karianne Lisonbee’s new version.
Gov. Gary Herbert, who recently called some conversion therapy practices “barbaric,” said in a statement that he supports Lisonbee’s substitute and “the effort to curtail abusive and unprofessional practices.”
The substitute bill by Lisonbee, R-Clearfield, focuses on prohibiting practices that cause pain or physical distress to a minor patient. It also would ban claims that a therapy could fully and permanently reverse a child’s sexual orientation and assertions that such a change is necessary.
Geoff Heath, an attorney who sits on the board of Alliance for Therapeutic Choice and Scientific Integrity, praised the replacement language for cracking down on concrete practices. In contrast, Hall’s prohibition would raise “significant constitutional problems” and could hamper therapists because of a vaguely defined ban on conversion therapy, Heath said.
Clifford Rosky, a University of Utah law professor who sits on Equality Utah’s board, said that’s hogwash.
The state has broad authority to regulate the practice of medicine, he said, pointing to one existing law that makes it a felony to subject a patient to psychiatric treatment or nonvocational mental health counseling “for the purpose of changing his concept of, belief about, or faith in God.”
Federal courts have upheld conversion therapy bans in other states, and the U.S. Supreme Court has declined to hear appeals of these judicial rulings, he said.
Lisonbee’s substitute bill does not bar conversion therapy aimed at changing gender identity, leaving transgender youth unprotected, Rosky said. And it would let conversion therapists continue to use the same techniques, as long as they don’t guarantee their clients a certain outcome, he said.
“The problem that we run into is that therapists can get crafty. They can get creative,” Hall told the committee. “And they won’t say, ‘I can tell you that this treatment will result in complete and permanent reversal.’ But the creative therapist will say something like, ‘If you do x, y and z, this might help your sexual orientation.’"
The 8-4 committee vote on the bill followed more than an hour of public testimony. At the outset, Lisonbee, the committee chairwoman, split up the speakers into two groups and told them to line up along opposite walls — on one side of the room stood parents of gay children, people who had traumatic experiences in conversion therapy and mental health representatives. On the other were people who said they’d benefitted from “change therapy” and counselors who bridled against legislation they deemed overly restrictive.
Family Watch International — an Arizona-based organization that the Southern Poverty Law Center lists as an anti-LGBT extremist group — brought its resources to bear against Hall’s version of the bill.
Fliers with a photo of a smiling, heterosexual couple on their wedding day were piled around the committee room, directing readers to the organization’s website. The pictured Arizona couple, who would only identify themselves as Caleb and Julia, traveled to Utah for Tuesday’s committee meeting to speak about how a therapist helped Caleb trace his same-sex attraction back to childhood trauma. The counseling, Caleb said, paved the way for his marriage to Julia.
One mental health counselor, Joan Landes, said Hall’s overly broad proposal would handcuff therapists when dealing with a wide range of issues, preventing them from treating pedophilic disorder and teens with addiction to pornography, among other things.
“The way that this bill is crafted, it’s basically a ‘must stay gay’ bill,” Landes said.
Nanci Klein of the Utah Psychological Association countered these arguments and said Hall’s ban would not interfere with appropriate treatments for gender dysphoria or sexual trauma. And Taryn Hyatt, area director for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, also spoke in strong support of Hall’s legislation.
“Suicide does not happen in our LGBTQ community because of their identity. It happens because of the world’s reaction to it,” she said.
Now that the bill has been voted out of committee, it will head to the House floor.