Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Group threatens suit if Palm Beach County bans gay conversion therapy

WEST PALM BEACH — It’s called “conversion therapy.” Advocates of it, some of whom dismiss the term altogether, say it’s a legitimate way to help people — usually teens — rid themselves of “unwanted same sex attractions.”

Rights groups say it’s forced brainwashing that doesn’t work and harms people who didn’t need any conversion at all.

Now the Liberty Counsel, a legal advocacy group, is saying a planned Palm Beach County ban on such counseling for minors is unconstitutional and the group could well sue to block it.

On June 20, the Palm Beach County Human Rights Council, which fights discrimination, especially against lesbian/gay/bisexual/ transgenders, asked commissioners in Palm Beach County and the city of West Palm Beach to ban “conversion therapy.”

Council founder and President Rand Hoch told commissioners the practice, also known as “reparative therapy,” is “based on the erroneous assumption” that LGBT identities “are mental disorders that can be cured through aversion treatment.”

The County Commission hasn’t yet placed the item on any agenda, Assistant County Administrator Todd Bonlarron said this past week. County Attorney Denise Nieman said she hoped to have an opinion by the end of this week about whether a ban would survive a constitutional challenge. She did say that “there’s a number of areas of concern we have.”

Neither Bonlarron nor Nieman had a comment on the Liberty Counsel letter.

While the Liberty Counsel’s letter doesn’t say it outright, “we would consider a legal challenge,” if commissioners approve the ban, Mat Staver, an Orlando-based attorney for the group, told The Palm Beach Post.

In a letter to county commissioners, Staver said the county “has no authority to enact such an ordinance,” and even if it did, “any such ordinance would represent a blatant violation of the First Amendment’s most basic liberties.”

Liberty Counsel says it now is litigating several similar cases and has persuaded legislators in several states, including Florida, to reject state bans. Attempts in the Florida Legislature have stalled in committee.

“If the Liberty Counsel wants to come down and fight this, bring it on,” the Rights Council’s Hoch said last week from Philadelphia, where he was attending the Democratic National Convention. He said the county “absolutely” would withstand a legal challenge and that U.S. Supreme Court already has declined to hear challenges to similar bans.

After the Human Rights Council’s June 20 call for action, County Mayor Mary Lou Berger asked staff to research the idea.

On July 12, during public comment, the commission heard from Julie Hamilton, who said she was a local psychotherapist and former president of the Alliance for Therapeutic Choice and Scientific Integrity.

Hamilton said people “ a r e n o t simply born gay” and that some people can change their orientation. And she said a ban on therapy isn’t needed because therapists already are bound by various ethical rules. She said the proposed law would block help for teenagers “who are distressed by their unwanted (same sex) attraction. You are taking away hope from them.”

The Liberty Counsel letter quoted a 2014 American College of Pediatricians statement that “the scientific literature, however, is clear: Same-sex attractions are more fluid than fixed, specially for adolescents — many of whom can and do change.”

The legal threat by Liberty Counsel follows a note to commissioners from the National Task Force for Therapy Equality, based in Arlington, Va., near Washington. It says it represents “thousands of clients who formerly identify” as LGBT, as well as “tens of thousands of youth, parents and facilities who experience unwanted same-sex attractions.’

Task Force co-coordinator Christopher J. Doyle wrote that “activists labeling this counseling ‘conversion therapy’ are using scare tactics to silence youth, and their families, that seek help for sexual and gender and identify conflicts. I hope this body makes the right and fair decision to support all youth and respect the wide range and diversity of sexual values they hold.”

And commissioners heard from the South Florida Association of Christian Counselors, a group of 569 pastors, Christian leaders, and therapists and counselors, most in Palm Beach County; its board includes Palm Beach Atlantic University professor Henry Virkler. The coalition said individuals with what it calls distressing and conflicting same-sex attractions “have the right to obtain professional assistance for living a life that is incongruent with their faith, values and goals.”

Liberty Counsel says it’s a nonprofit group with offices in Orlando and Washington and in Lynchburg, Va., home of Liberty University, the evangelistic Christian college founded by Jerry Falwell. While it has no direct tie to the school, Staver is the former dean of its law school.