Utah lawmakers failed to ban the widely discredited practice of conversion therapy but new rules ordered by the governor could curb or end it

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said Thursday that he lacks the expertise to fully evaluate conversion therapy, but has asked state regulators to review and propose new professional and ethical rules around the controversial and widely discredited practice.

During his monthly televised news conference at KUED, Herbert shared a letter dated June 17 that he had sent to Francine Giani, executive director of the Department of Commerce, directing the state’s Psychologist Licensing Board to make proposed rules available for public comment no later than September 16.

“I certainly have concerns about some of the abuse that I’ve heard talked about, but I’m not a psychologist,” Herbert said. “This is not my background. I’m going to rely upon the experts to tell us what should be done, or not be done, or how it should be done.”

Herbert was criticized during the most recent legislative session by opponents of conversion therapy — which aims to alter a person’s sexual orientation — after he endorsed changes to a bill intended to ban the practice for minor patients. The bill’s sponsor abandoned the legislation after the changes, two members of a state suicide task force resigned in protest, and a group of young adults staged a sit-in outside Herbert’s offices at the state Capitol demanding an apology, which was ultimately delivered in written form.

On Thursday, Herbert said the new rules would provide valuable insight and move the issue “out of the political arena,” while leaving the door open to potential legislation in the future. Asked if he believes conversion therapy should be banned, Herbert compared the question to a resident calling him to fix their plumbing.

“That’s not my job,” Herbert said. "That's not what I'm qualified to do."

In his letter to Giani, Herbert emphasizes versions of conversion therapy that rely on induced physical distress. That language is similar to the substitute version of the proposed ban, which focused on practices causing “physical discomfort,” and which advocates warned was too narrowly defined to address the various types of therapy practiced on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender minors.

“In my understanding,” Herbert wrote to Giani, “such techniques would seem to be unethical, and, therefore, I do not understand why they would be a part of professional practice.”

In a joint prepared statement, the two sponsors of the failed conversion therapy ban — Rep. Craig Hall, R-West Valley City, and Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton — said they were encouraged by and appreciative of Herbert taking positive steps on the issue.

“We have a lot of work to do as we review this policy,” the lawmakers said, “and look forward to continuing to work with the Governor’s Office as we end this antiquated practice."

And Troy Williams, executive director of Equality Utah and one of the two suicide task force members who resigned, similarly complimented Herbert’s actions.

“We are hopeful that placing this issue in the hands of licensed psychologists will result in a complete and permanent ban of the practice in Utah,” Williams said. “The American Psychological Association has decisively condemned the practice.”

Thursday’s news conference also included questions on an ongoing effort to reform the state’s tax code, air quality initiatives, the Salt Lake City mayor’s race and Herbert’s recent trade mission to Europe, during which he met with Pope Francis.

Herbert described the European trip as a success, saying that relationships had been reinforced with rail and aerospace companies who do business in Utah or have the state “on their radar screen.” On his meeting with Pope Francis, Herbert said the Catholic Pontiff discussed the importance of serving mankind independent of individual religious beliefs, and that Francis asked Herbert and first lady Jeanette Herbert to pray for him.

“I’ve added to my prayers Pope Francis and his leadership team from the Catholic Church,” Herbert said.

Air quality and carbon taxes

Herbert said the state’s successes in reducing air pollution should be recognized. While the state remains troubled by high levels of particulate matter and ozone — compounded by winter inversions — he said the state is trending in the right direction.

Lawmakers appropriated roughly $29 million toward air quality initiatives this year, far short of the $100 million requested in Herbert’s budget. But Herbert said the effort to address the issue should be applauded.

“That’s a lot of money,” he said. “It’s a good down payment.”

Herbert also said that he is neither opposed to, nor supportive of, a proposed ballot initiative to enact a carbon tax in the state. Everybody supports having cleaner air, Herbert said, and the question of whether carbon emissions should be taxed should be part of a broader conversation on the state’s revenue sources.

“I’m not sure a carbon tax will change the outcome,” he said, “but it’s certainly worth a discussion.”

Salt Lake City mayor

Herbert declined to endorse a candidate in this year’s election for a new Salt Lake City mayor, but specifically identified three of the eight hopefuls when describing the good choices before voters.

He complimented city councilwoman, and former council chairwoman, Erin Mendenhall for her work negotiating with lawmakers on the development of an inland port in the city. He also described Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, as “a very good legislator” who understands the issues and represents her city constituents, and credited businessman David Ibarra with understanding the free market system.

Herbert said it’s very important to him that the next mayor understand the need to collaborate and cooperate with his office and the state Legislature.

“We have not seen that a lot in the past,” he said. “We need to see that more in the future.”

The Salt Lake Tribune will update this story.