News (USA)

A federal court just found a First Amendment right to force kids into conversion therapy

A child on the ground, maybe crying.
Photo: Shutterstock

A federal judge has issued an injunction against a conversion therapy ban because she says it likely violates the free speech rights of conversion therapists.

The hate group Liberty Counsel sued the city of Tampa, Florida, on behalf of two conversion therapists, arguing that Tampa’s conversion therapy ban violates the rights of conversion therapists.

Judge Amanda Arnold Sansone agreed with them. She ruled that conversion therapy is a form of speech protected by the First Amendment and that the city of Tampa was probably engaging in viewpoint discrimination.

Key to Sansone’s decision was the 2018 Supreme Court decision National Institute of Family and Life Advocates v. Becerra (NIFLA). In that case, the five conservatives Supreme Court justices ruled that the state of California can’t force crisis pregnancy centers to give patients information about abortion and even rejected the idea of “professional speech.”

In her ruling, Sansone said that conversion therapy is speech, not conduct, as long as it’s limited to speech and doesn’t involve techniques like electric shocks.

Related: Facebook’s PAC has donated thousands to politicians who support conversion therapy

She said that while the city has an interest in protecting minors from harm, there were alternatives to a ban on conversion therapy, like getting the “informed consent” of minors… even though those minors are usually dependent on their homophobic parents and can’t meaningfully give consent to something as harmful as conversion therapy.

The damage that conversion therapy causes – yes, even if it’s only “talk therapy” – is well-documented. People who go through conversion therapy face depression, difficulty with intimate relationships, loss of social support networks, lowered self-esteem, and increased suicidal thoughts and attempts.

Previous courts have had no problem finding that conversion therapy bans are constitutional. Both the Third and the Ninth Circuit Courts have upheld conversion therapy bans for minors.

“Surely, the fundamental rights of parents do not include the right to choose a specific medical or mental health treatment that the state has reasonably deemed harmful or ineffective.” U.S. District Judge Freda Wolfson wrote in 2013 when she found that New Jersey’s conversion therapy ban is constitutional.

“To find otherwise would create unimaginable and unintentional consequences,” she added.

The Supreme Court has so far refused to hear appeals when Circuit Courts rule in favor of conversion therapy bans.

But this week’s decision is based on NIFLA, a Supreme Court decision from 2018. The ruling may be a sign that the increasingly conservative Supreme Court will one day rule that conversion therapy bans are unconstitutional.

The decision was celebrated by the Liberty Counsel and the Alliance for Therapeutic Choice and Scientific Integrity, a conversion therapy organization.

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