SAN FRANCISCO — A federal appeals court on Thursday upheld the nation’s first-of-its-kind law in California prohibiting health practitioners from offering psychotherapy aimed at making gay youth straight.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled that the state’s ban on so-called conversion therapy for minors doesn’t violate the free speech rights of licensed counselors and patients seeking treatment.
The activities of pastors and lay counselors who are unlicensed but provide such therapy through church programs would not be covered under the law.
The case before the appeals court was brought by professionals who practice sexual-orientation change therapy, two families who say their teenage sons benefited from it, and a national association of Christian mental health counselors. They argued the ban infringes on their free speech and freedom of association and religious rights. The counselors also argue it jeopardizes their livelihoods.
However, in a 3-0 ruling, the court panel held that California has the power to prohibit licensed mental health providers from administering therapies deemed harmful, and the fact that speech may be used to carry out those therapies does not turn such bans into prohibitions of speech.
The law says therapists and counselors who treat minors with methods designed to eliminate or reduce their same-sex attractions would be engaging in unprofessional conduct and subject to discipline by state licensing boards.
Supporters, including Gov. Jerry Brown and Attorney General Kamala Harris, say the ban is necessary to protect children from a coercive practice that can put them at increased risk of suicide. They also say the therapy’s efficacy has been questioned or rejected by every major mental health professional association.
The law was supposed to take effect at the beginning of the year but was put on hold pending the 9th Circuit’s ruling. Thursday’s ruling reverses the injunction.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie signed a similar law that would also outlaw conversion therapy in his state.