MANHATTAN (CN) – The highest-ranking member of the New York City Council introduced a bill Thursday to repeal the city’s own conversion therapy ban, in a political chess move he says will not restrict the rights of LGBTQ New Yorkers who live in the five boroughs.
“This was a painful decision that was made after leading LGBTQ advocates requested that the Council repeal our 2017 bill,” City Council Speaker Corey Johnson said in a statement Thursday.
The city bill, which bans all forms of conversion therapy done for a fee, passed overwhelmingly in 2017 and was implemented last year. A newly Democratic state Legislature banned conversion therapy on minors earlier this year. The city says LGBTQ New Yorkers will retain protections under the state law.
“After intense deliberation, the Council concluded that it was best to take this drastic step. The courts have changed considerably over the last few years, and we cannot count on them to rule in favor of much-needed protections for the LGBTQ community,” said Johnson. “To be clear, this alleged therapy is barbaric and inhumane, but repealing this law seemed to be the best path forward.”
Part of the city’s concern is a Brooklyn federal lawsuit filed in January by the Arizona-based Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian organization designated by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group.
The suit says the First Amendment rights of Dr. David Schwartz, a clinical social worker who practices Orthodox Judaism like most of his patients, are violated by the “counseling censorship law” because the religion traditionally does not allow same-sex relationships. He argues he should be allowed to counsel his patients on their sexual preferences and gender identity.
Johnson, who himself is openly gay and HIV-positive, said he could not name another time in his six years on the City Council when the body had pulled a law in such a way.
“I really struggled with it,” he said in a press conference Thursday, before he introduced the repeal bill at the Council’s meeting. “Ultimately I think this is the responsible, strategic, and right thing to do.”
As President Donald Trump stacks U.S. courts with conservative judges — he has appointed 150 federal judges so far — LGBTQ advocates worried the Schwartz case could go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where it would face a stiff challenge against the five-member conservative majority, possibly setting back rights even further.
New York’s federal appeals court, the Second Circuit, is also increasingly conservative. Trump has appointed five members in the last two years, though two are still pending confirmation.
Johnson defended the Council’s original bill Thursday, saying that it provided protections when there were none from the state.
“Now that the state has the law on the books, we want to ensure that we are not at harm for legal challenge,” Johnson said at the press conference. “Not just for ourselves, but also setting up a national precedent, which could undermine laws all across the country. We want to be on the offensive nationally.”
LGBTQ adults are not specifically protected under the state law, but will have recourse in the city under consumer fraud laws. Schwartz’s lawsuit involves adults.
Mathew Shurka, a survivor of conversion therapy who is now the co-founder and chief strategist of advocacy group Born Perfect, fought for the 2017 city bill for years, but now supports its repeal.
“Now that the statewide law passed earlier this year, the NYC ordinance is no longer necessary. LGBTQ people in New York are protected by the state law and existing consumer fraud laws,” Shurka said in an email Thursday.
He added, “I am confident that Corey [Johnson] is making the right decision in repealing this law, to minimize resources to lawsuits allowing advocates to focus on expanding more state legislation.”
The Trevor Project, which provides suicide prevention and crisis support services to young LGBTQ people and filed an amicus brief in the Schwartz case, also applauded the City Council for the move Thursday.
“We know that legislation like New York’s existing statewide protections are the national gold standard for protecting youth from this dangerous and discredited practice,” CEO and Executive Director Amit Paley said in a statement Thursday. “The City Council’s action will stop unnecessary litigation after the passage of statewide protections and save valuable resources that can be used to help LGBTQ residents.”
Attorney Alan Schoenfeld filed a letter on the Schwartz docket Wednesday notifying U.S. District Judge Raymond Dearie of the repeal bill.