Utah enacts ban on ‘conversion therapy’ for minors

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Craig Hall, R-West Valley, who was the sponsor of the bill to prohibit conversion therapy, speaks about his involvement with the law as Equality Utah holds a press conference at the Utah Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2020, to recognize Utah becoming the 19th state in the nation to enact a ban on conversion therapy for minors.

Utah has officially enacted its ban on so-called conversion therapy for minors, becoming the 19th and most conservative state so far to prohibit the discredited practice.

“Ultimately, this bill means to me that youth will be accepted and protected within our communities,” Nathan Dalley, a University of Utah student and survivor of conversion therapy, said at a Jan. 22 news conference.

The professional licensing rule, which took effect Tuesday, bars therapists and counselors from attempting to change the sexual orientation or gender identity of a client under age 18. A state licensed therapist who violates the rule could face sanctions for unprofessional conduct.

The change didn’t come without struggle; last year, LGBTQ advocates offered up a state bill against conversion therapy, but their efforts collapsed after conservative lawmakers weakened the legislation.

Gov. Gary Herbert later directed state regulators to take up the issue and develop professional rules based on the best available science. But the rule-making effort also seemed in danger of imploding when, in October, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced its opposition to the drafted language.

Advocates, church representatives and state leaders ultimately coalesced around the rule that took effect this week. The approved version closely mirrors the bill that Rep. Craig Hall, R-West Valley City, sponsored in the 2019 session and contains an exemption for clergy or religious counselors.

"This is historic progress and further proof that protecting youth from this danger transcends regional or political divides,” Casey Pick, senior fellow for advocacy and government affairs at The Trevor Project, said in a prepared statement.

Troy Williams, of Equality Utah, credited those who shared their stories of conversion therapy with helping determine the outcome.

They opened hearts and ultimately changed minds,” Williams said during the Jan. 22 news conference.

Gayle Ruzicka, president of the conservative Utah Eagle Forum, said she’s confident lawmakers will attempt to alter or overturn the new administrative rule in the upcoming legislative session or the next. Some legislators, she said, are angry that state regulators enacted restrictions that are essentially identical to the ones they rejected when Hall’s bill came before them.

“I’m sure something will be done,” she said.

Williams said he’d hate to see any legislation aimed at toppling the new ban.

“It would be harmful to young people and send a really damaging message. And we’ve worked really hard to address a lot of the concerns that conservatives have," he said. "Saving lives is not a partisan issue here.”

A spokeswoman for Herbert said the governor would oppose any attempts to change or overturn the state’s new conversion therapy ban. Senate President Stuart Adams said in a prepared statement that he supports the “common ground solution” that officials and advocates reached.

“Part of the legislative process is to review legislation presented though I’m not sure there will be support for additional changes,” Adams, R-Layton, said in the statement.

Clifford Rosky, a University of Utah law professor who worked on the ban’s wording, said Utah has emerged as a model for other states, such as Iowa, Arizona and Nebraska.

“There will be many more bills introduced in conservative states across the country,” he predicted. “And they’re looking to our example to show that this is no longer a partisan cause, that we all agree on how important it is to protect children from the risk of suicide.”

Equality Utah and other advocates see the ban as a step toward lowering the state’s suicide rate. Conversion therapy has been linked to depression and suicide risk among minors, and supporters of a ban say it would be a lifesaving change.

Nanci Klein, director of professional affairs for the Utah Psychological Association, said gender identity and sexual orientation change efforts have been “repudiated by all major world medical and mental health organizations," adding that she rejects using the word “therapy” to describe these practices.

Researchers at the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law have estimated that 350,000 LGBTQ adults in the U.S. experienced conversion therapy as adolescents.

The co-founder of Born Perfect, a national campaign to end conversion therapy, praised Utah for showing that political conservatives and advocates can work together.

“Utah’s rule protecting LGBTQ youth from conversion therapy is a milestone in our nation’s growing recognition that LGBTQ youth are part of every community, and that every child is born perfect,” Mathew Shurka of Born Perfect said in a prepared statement.