SAN FRANCISCO – California may enforce a new law that prohibits mental health professionals from trying to change a minor’s sexual orientation, a federal appeals court panel ruled Thursday.
A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals concluded unanimously that the law does not violate the free speech rights of patients or professionals or the fundamental rights of parents. The state may prohibit treatment it deems harmful, the court said.
“Without a doubt, protecting the well-being of minors is a legitimate state interest,” wrote Judge Susan Graber.
The ban on so-called conversion therapy was supposed to have taken effect in January, but legal challenges blocked it. California was the first state in the country to pass such a ban, and New Jersey has since followed.
The Pacific Justice Institute, which advocates religious freedom, said the law would have “a chilling effect by placing clergy who are also licensed therapists in a legal quagmire.”
“This decision is a dark day for those who believe in the First Amendment and the rights of parents over the proper upbringing of their children,” said Brad Dacus, president of the institute. “Make no mistake, we are not finished in our efforts to overturn this outrageous legislation.”
Gay rights groups praised the ruling and predicted that the law would save lives.
Minors in California will be protected from “cruel and damaging practices that have been rejected by all leading medical and mental health professional organizations,” said Shannon Minter, legal director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, which represented Equality California in defending the law.
Therapy to change a person’s sexual orientation started at a time when the psychiatric profession considered homosexuality a disease, a belief that was abandoned in the early 1970s. Major psychological associations now consider the therapy ineffective and potentially harmful.
Techniques to make a gay person heterosexual have included induced vomiting, electric shock and even castration. Therapy today generally focuses on reframing a patient’s thought pattens, assertiveness training and reinforcement of heterosexual behavior.
The court said communications during psychoanalysis were entitled to constitutional protection but still could be regulated.
The California law subjects mental health providers to discipline by their state licensing boards for treating minors for sexual orientation change.