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As conservatives panic over groomers, Christian asks court to allow conversion therapy on kids

A therapist and a patient on a couch
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A conversion therapy practitioner is trying to get a federal court to overturn a state’s ban on conversion therapy so that he can go back to trying to make LGBTQ minors straight, even as conservatives around the country argue that adults shouldn’t discuss gender identity or sexual orientation with children lest they “groom” the minors.

Brian Tingley, a licensed marriage counselor who works with a group of Christian counselors,  sued the state of Washington, alleging that the state’s 2018 law banning conversion therapy for minors violates his freedom of speech and religion. The state law deemed it “unprofessional conduct” for a licensed mental health professional to attempt to change a client’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

Related: Fox News suggests that Disney is literally turning kids queer

The anti-LGBTQ hate group Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), which is representing Tingley, argued that “counselor-client conversations are private” and that clients – even minors – should be allowed to choose conversion therapy if they want to. They say that Tingley practices “nothing but ordinary counseling methods” as he works with children and their “sexual-orientation and gender-identity struggles,” implying that it’s only the at-times ridiculous and violent practices of conversion therapists that is at issue and not the fact that they are telling children that they are fundamentally broken and can change their identity if they try hard enough.

A federal judge last August threw Tingley’s case out, saying that the state can regulate professional conduct. This week ADF argued in front of a three-judge panel at the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that the case should be allowed to go forward.

“The 1st Amendment tells us that the fact that an idea may be harmful, may cause harm, is not a sufficient reason to censor,” an ADF attorney argued.

The appeal comes as conservatives have been arguing for months that having a conversation with children about sexual orientation or gender identity is a form of “grooming” or pedophilia, saying that it’s inappropriate for adults to talk to kids about those subjects and that they can even be turned gay if they learn about things like same-sex marriage.

For example, the Florida governor’s press secretary Christina Pushaw defended the state’s Don’t Say Gay law – which bans discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity in some grades and requires them to be “developmentally appropriate” in higher grades – by saying that it’s an “Anti-Grooming Bill.”

“It’s inappropriate for adults to instruct children in VPK-3rd grade (ages 3-9) about sexuality,” she said in a statement in March. “Talking about adult topics with young children is a tactic of groomers.”

She’s not alone. Conservatives declared war on the Trevor Project – which runs an LGBTQ teen crisis hotline – last month, saying that its services amount to child molestation because the organization doesn’t inform parents about its conversations with teens considering suicide.

Colin Wright, an editor of the anti-LGBTQ website Quillette, said that the Trevor Project respecting LGBTQ teens’ privacy is intended “to keep parents in the dark.”

“Leftwing activists are predatory groomers,” conservative pundit Lauren Chen tweeted in response. “If you sit around designing and promoting ways to get in touch with kids so you can discuss sexuality and keep it from their parents, you are a groomer.”

ADF developed its argument that there are people who have a constitutional right to have private conversations with minors about sexual orientation and gender identity before groomer panic started, the timing of their appeal puts the case right in the middle of calls to ban all discussions of LGBTQ identities with kids.

The difference, perhaps, is that parents often force their minor children into conversion therapy; that is, the discussions of LGBTQ identities aren’t the issue, but the power parents have over their children is.

ADF, though, argues that Tingley does not conspire with parents to try to shame their kids into turning straight; he says that he only works with kids who have a goal of turning straight, independent of their parents’ wishes.

Major health and mental health organizations have denounced conversion therapy as ineffective and harmful. Unlike the work that the Trevor Project does to stop LGBTQ teen suicide, conversion therapy has been tied to depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts.

A 2013 survey showed that 84 percent of former patients of ex-gay therapy said it inflicted lasting shame and emotional harm. Numerous conversion therapy advocates have later come out as still gay and apologized for the harm that conversion therapy causes.

“The longstanding consensus of the behavioral and social sciences and the health and mental health professions is that homosexuality per se is a normal and positive variation of human sexual orientation,” the American Psychological Association said in a resolution opposing conversion therapy.

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