‘Conversion therapy’ ban OK’d by LDS Church and advocates, announces Gov. Herbert

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Ermiya Fanaeian, with a group of young people protesting in front of the House Chamber, calling on legislators to support a conversion therapy ban and denounce homophobia and transphobia in Salt Lake City on Monday March 11, 2019.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and LGBTQ advocates have coalesced around a proposed ban on “conversion therapy” for minors.

Gov. Gary Herbert on Tuesday evening announced that groups involved in the emotional debate have finally agreed on language that would prohibit the discredited practice of trying to change the sexual orientation or gender identity of young people.

The proposed professional licensing rule for therapists and psychologists is patterned after an earlier bill that was backed by Equality Utah and went unopposed by the LDS Church — although it stalled in the state Legislature in March.

“I have learned much through this process,” Herbert said in a prepared statement. “The stories of youth who have endured these so-called therapies are heart-rending, and I’m grateful that we have found a way forward that will ban conversion therapy forever in our state.”

Troy Williams, executive director of Equality Utah, said he looks forward to Utah becoming the 19th state in the nation to approve a “conversion therapy” ban.

“This is a beautiful way for us to start the Thanksgiving week,” he said.

The LDS Church has already expressed opposition to “conversion therapy” and has said its therapists do not practice it. Still, Marty Stephens, the church’s director of government relations, said in a statement that “we are grateful for the clarifications the new rule provides, and we support its adoption.”

The proposed rule is expected to be published Dec. 15 and could go into effect as early as Jan. 22, according to a news release.

In a Tuesday evening interview, Williams applauded the LGBTQ Utahns who have stepped forward in recent months to share their experiences with officials and the public.

“I think that the real heroes of this are those individuals who endured ‘conversion therapy’ and were brave enough to tell their story,” he said.

A ban on “conversion therapy,” a practice associated with depression and thoughts of self-harm, could save lives in a state with the nation’s sixth-highest suicide rate, advocates have said. However, Equality Utah and other groups have struggled to get the prohibition over the finish line.

After the proposed conversion ban ran aground in the Legislature this year, Herbert directed state regulators to develop rules for mental health professionals based on the best available scientific evidence. The resulting language was the subject of an emotional hearing several months ago and of hundreds of written comments, nearly all of them supportive of a ban.

The rule as drafted was backed by the state’s major medical and mental health providers, including Intermountain Healthcare, the Utah Psychological Association and the National Association of Social Workers in Utah.

But the proposal suffered a setback last month when the LDS Church objected that the drafted language was too broad, arguing it would stifle frank therapeutic conversations about sexuality and religious beliefs. The church encouraged state regulators to kick the matter back to the Legislature or amend it to allay its concerns.

Since then, Williams said advocates have been in “nonstop conversations” with Herbert’s office and church representatives in search of a resolution. While he couldn’t comment on why the LDS Church ultimately signed on to the proposed ban language, Williams said the recent discussions have delved into the harms caused by “conversion therapy.”

An Equality Utah survey last year found that more than 100 LGBTQ respondents reported that they had undergone “conversion therapy,” and all of them said they’d experienced suicidal ideation, Williams said. That’s because, he added, attempting to eliminate same-sex attraction or alter a gender identity “suggests to you that the essence of your soul is broken and needs to be fixed, and that has a devastating impact on the mental health of LGBTQ youth.”

Rep. Craig Hall, who sponsored this year’s unsuccessful bill to ban the "therapy,” said that “it’s taken everyone a bit of a journey” to get comfortable with the rule language, but he’s pleased by the result.

“We certainly seem to have a lot of consensus with a lot of different stakeholders in the state, and I truly believe that we have language that both prevents ‘conversion therapy’ and also protects the interests of the patients and therapists,” Hall, R-West Valley City, said in an interview.

In prepared statements, Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, expressed support for the proposed rule language, while House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, said he was pleased the governor’s office had found areas of agreement with the involved groups.

“Lawmakers will monitor the rulemaking process and its implementation to ensure the best interest of all Utahns are met,” Wilson said.

A spokesman for the LDS Church declined to comment beyond the Stephens’ statement in the governor’s news release.