Appeals court upholds Washington State’s conversion therapy ban

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A three-judge panel has dismissed a challenge to Washington State’s ban on so-called conversion therapy, ruling state legislators who passed the law were right to prevent licensed healthcare providers from performing the controversial practice on minors.

The 66-page ruling on Tuesday comes in a challenge brought last year by licensed marriage and family therapist Robert Tingley against the state’s 2018 law that bans healthcare professionals from performing conversion therapy on those under 18 years of age under threat of disciplinary action.

Tingley claimed the law chilled his speech and caused him to self-censor in violation of his First Amendment rights, while also arguing the ban was unconstitutional vague, and in contravention the 14th Amendment.

While the three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit viewed Tingley had standing for them to view the case, they unanimously ruled Tuesday that the Washington State legislature “rationally acted” by amending its regulatory scheme for licensed healthcare providers to add that performing conversion therapy on minors to its list of unprofessional conduct.

“States do not lose the power to regulate the safety of medical treatments performed under the authority of a state license merely because those treatments are implemented through speech rather than through scalpel,” Judge Ronald Gould wrote in the ruling.

“The Washington legislature acted rationally when it decided to protect the ‘physical and psychological well-being’ of its minors by preventing state-licensed healthcare providers from practicing conversion therapy on them.”

Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson said in a brief statement that Tuesday’s ruling “protects LGBTQ+ youth.”

“We must keep fighting to defend freedom and uphold science from those seeking to deny identity and take rights away,” he said.

So-called conversion therapy is psychological interventions that seek to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity, and has been widely panned by medical organizations.

Washington State is one of more than 20 in the nation to have implemented laws that prevent minors from being subjected to the controversial practice, and the judges on Tuesday said the state relied upon scientific evidence to prohibit the practice on children, regardless of religious beliefs.

Tingley had argued the law violated one’s freedom of religion and freedom of exercise under the First Amendment, stating the legislature knew that most people sought conversion therapy for religious reasons.

However, the three-judge panel rejected this argument on the grounds that the legislature was aware people seek conversion therapy also for secular reasons, including social stigma, family rejection and societal intolerance for sexual minorities.

“Affirming the dismissal of Tingley’s challenge under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, the panel held that the law was a neutral law targeted at preventing the harms associated with conversion therapy, and not at the religious exercise of those who wish to practice this type of therapy on minors,” Gould wrote.

The judges also rejected Tingley’s claim that the law was unconstitutionally vague, specifically due to its use of the terms “sexual orientation” and gender identity.”

“Neither term is unconstitutionally vague,” Gould said. “‘Sexual orientation’ and ‘gender identity’ have common meanings that are clear to a reasonable person — let alone a licensed mental health provider.”

Mathew Shurka, cofounder of Born Perfect, a campaign to end conversion therapy by the National Center for Lesbian Rights, said laws such as the one passed by Washington State are critical to protecting minors from unethical therapists.

“As a survivor of more than five years of conversion therapy, I know firsthand how damaging these practices are to young people and their families,” Shurka said in a statement emailed to UPI. “The medical community has rejected these practices because they are harmful, ineffective and unnecessary.

“Being LGBTQ is not a mental health disorder. Trying to change such a fundamental aspect of a person’s identity not only impossible, it is profoundly dangerous and cases serious, lasting harm.”

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