(CN) – Two Florida lawmakers want the state to ban “conversion therapy” for minors, following the lead of several local governments that passed ordinances against the controversial practice last year.
State Sen. Jose Rodriguez and state Rep. Evan Jenne filed bills earlier this month that would prohibit state-licensed counselors from engaging in conversion therapy, aimed at “changing” a young person’s sexual orientation or gender identity, on minors.
The practice, widely criticized by medical professionals, is already banned in several states, including California, Illinois and Massachusetts. Over the last two years, several Florida cities and two counties followed suit, leading advocates to push for a statewide ban.
“Conversion therapy is a widely debunked, deceitful practice that is most often inflicted on young people in the state,” said Joe Saunders, senior political director for Equality Florida, who backs the bill. “It needs to be called out for what it is, which is child abuse.”
Parents typically push young people into these therapies, Saunders said, due to religious convictions or just confusion on such personal issues. Soon, the children “find their way into this world with licensed practitioners who sell this snake oil,” he said.
A conversion therapy ordinance adopted in Tampa, Florida came under fire in December when two counselors filed a federal lawsuit, alleging the ban is unconstitutional.
“Plaintiffs have a First Amendment and state constitutional rights as licensed counselors to engage in and provide counseling consistent with their and their clients’ sincerely held religious beliefs,” the complaint states,” and their clients have First Amendment and state constitutional rights to receive such counseling free from the viewpoint-based intrusion of the city into the sacrosanct therapeutic alliance.”
The lawsuit also contends the state has sole authority to regulate counseling. The proposed bill would take that argument out of contention.
Liberty Counsel, an evangelical Christian nonprofit that uses “strategic litigation” to “restore the culture,” took on the case on behalf of the two counselors. Critics, such as the Southern Poverty Law Center, label the organization an anti-LGBT “hate group.”
Mat Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel, said conversion therapy bans impact freedom of speech as much as religious freedom.
“This bill says that a client cannot receive the counseling that they want,” he said. “They are prohibiting the client from choosing the chosen objective they seek to change.”
Staver does not like the term “conversion therapy” due to its past negative connotations and prefers “change therapy.” Although Staver does not believe in same-sex relationships, he disputes advocates’ charges that these counselors are directing any outcome for their clients, who he said willingly seek a change in their sexual habits.
“Under the ethical code, [counselors] are not supposed to force their client into a result,” he said, and should only act as “a guide to help the client reach the ultimate destination.”
For the last three years, similar bills addressing the practice have gone nowhere in the Florida Legislature. This year, however, advocates see the tide turning as more Floridians become educated on the issue.
“The conversation has become much louder now, whereas before, I don’t think people were aware of this issue,” said Rep. Jenne. “One of the things that gives us hope is you’re starting to see more and more localities pass these bans.”
Saunders, of Equality Florida, agrees the bill is as much about educating the community.
“We’ve only achieved half of the victory if this becomes law,” he said.