California officials asked an appeals panel to enforce the state’s first-in-the nation law barring gay conversion therapy for minors after two judges disagreed about whether its unconstitutional.
Lawyers for California Attorney General Kamala Harris say the counseling is discredited and unsafe, and the state’s responsibility to protect the health and safety of minors trumps free-speech concerns. Therapists, parents, patients and counseling groups supporting the practice say California can cite no specific evidence that the therapy is bad for kids and the law illegally quells doctor-patient speech.
“There is no evidence of harm among minors,” said Mat Staver, an attorney for therapists seeking to overturn the law, told a three-judge panel today. Enforcing the law would cause “irreparable harm for our clients. They would not be able to get the counseling that has benefited them, helped their self- esteem.”
Two federal judges in Sacramento reached opposite conclusions in separate lawsuits about whether the 2012 law, originally scheduled to take effect Jan. 1, should be enforced while the cases seeking to overturn the law proceed. One agreed that gay-conversion therapists would likely succeed on the merits of their case and granted an injunction blocking enforcement, while the other sided with the state and refused to block the law.
The San Francisco-based U.S. Court of Appeals panel put the law on hold in December and heard arguments today on whether that stay should remain in effect while the measure’s constitutionality is being decided.
California’s ban on “sexual-orientation change efforts,” or SOCE, passed by lawmakers in August and signed by Governor Jerry Brown in September, notes U.S. psychology groups urge patients and parents to avoid the counseling because it’s harmful. The law bars doctors, psychologists, family therapists and social workers from providing sexual-orientation conversion therapy to patients under 18. Violators are subject to discipline by state licensing entities.
New Jersey, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania lawmakers are considering similar rules.
Chief Judge Alex Kozinski asked California’s lawyers what evidence exists that the therapy harms children. Deputy Attorney General Alexandra Gordon said the American Psychological Association has found that attempts to change sexual orientation may cause depression and suicidal thoughts.
“We don’t really have something compelling here, I mean compelling evidence” of harm, said Kozinski. “It doesn’t say don’t do it.”
“It doesn’t specifically say ‘don’t do it.’ It says engage in competent care that doesn’t look anything like SOCE,” said Gordon.
The panel didn’t say when it would issue a ruling.
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