Utah’s proposed ‘conversion therapy’ ban slated for a public hearing later this month

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Connell O'Donovan, of Salt Lake says he endured 10-years of conversion therapy in high school and college. Utah officials are now considering rules that would ban the practice.

Proposed rules to ban Utah’s therapists from trying to change the sexual orientation or gender identity of minors are heading to a public hearing, where LGBTQ advocates expect conservative groups will attempt to weaken the language.

The suggested regulatory change would label these widely-denounced “conversion therapy” practices as a form of unprofessional conduct, possible grounds for stripping state licenses from violating social workers, counselors and psychologists.

Gov. Gary Herbert in June asked state officials to come up with a framework for prohibiting mental health workers from using conversion methods on patients younger than 18. The directive followed the collapse of legislation earlier this year that would’ve instituted a statutory ban. Amid a strong lobbying effort by right-wing groups, lawmakers watered the bill down to the point that the legislation’s sponsor could no longer stand behind it.

"The governor was wise to move this out of the political realm and over to scientists," said Troy Williams, executive director of Equality Utah. "Our understanding is this will have the same efficacy of law ... so young people can be protected."

Williams does anticipate that Utah Eagle Forum and others who opposed this year’s bill will make a showing at the Sept. 26 public hearing on the draft regulations. Equality Utah last month sent an email alerting recipients that the Eagle Forum is working to undermine the draft rules.

However, the draft language change has received an outpouring of support from a diverse group of religious and health care organizations, Williams said, and he expects many will appear at the public hearing to stand behind the rule.

The state’s occupational and professional licensing division estimates the rule change could generate a couple additional complaints of unprofessional conduct each year, costing about $1,000 to investigate.

The new regulations would cover Utah’s roughly 1,060 licensed psychologists, 4,200 clinical social workers, 1,380 certified social workers, 1,480 clinical mental health counselors and 11,200 physicians and surgeons, among others.

But division analysts don’t expect these individuals will be greatly impacted by the conversion therapy prohibition.

“The amendments update the rule in accordance with clear practice guidelines and position statements already existing in the industry, and the practices of most licensees are or should be already consistent with existing professional practice guidelines and position statements,” the analysis stated.

Gayle Ruzicka, president of the Utah Eagle Forum, said she is rallying individuals to testify against the current language, which she says would have a “chilling effect" on talk therapy. She raised the same complaints about the bill earlier this year and asked lawmakers to focus on barring specific practices that would cause physical distress to minors.

“I don’t think anybody should have electric shock. We don’t want anything that would physically harm or hurt a child,” Ruzicka said. “And we certainly don’t think a therapist should be able to make false promises. But other than that, they should have the freedom to have a conversation.”

Advocates have said methods involving physical discomfort are largely eradicated, and most conversion practices today take the form of talk therapy, which can also leave deep emotional and psychological scars.

Therapists and psychologists found guilty of unprofessional conduct could lose their licenses or have them suspended or restricted in some way. State regulators could also put an offender on probation or issue a public reprimand, according to Utah law.

The public hearing on the rules is scheduled for 9 a.m. Sept. 26 at the Heber Wells Building, 160 E. 300 South.