In Iowa and elsewhere, bans on widely discredited ‘conversion therapy’ become a conservative target

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DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — One of Iowa’s largest cities repealed its ban on “conversion therapy” — the discredited practice of trying to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity through counseling — after a Christian organization threatened legal action, part of a deepening national movement to challenge protections for LGBTQ+ kids.

The city council in Waterloo voted this week to remove its restrictions after Liberty Counsel warned in a letter June 30 that it would “take further action” if the city did not repeal the ordinance by August 1. It was enacted in May.

The organization, which is based in Orlando, Florida, argued the ordinance infringes on the constitutional right to free speech and acted on behalf of a therapist in Waterloo “who was concerned about the implications of this on the practice of counseling,” Mat Staver, Liberty Counsel founder and chair, said in an interview in which he promised further litigation targeting states.

In Iowa and across the country, efforts are spreading to curb the rights of LGBTQ+ kids and adopt restrictions on gender and sexuality in classrooms, youth sports and medicine. In recent years, local bans on conversion therapy in Florida also fell with the help of Liberty Counsel, which describes itself as a Christian ministry that is “restoring the culture by advancing religious freedom, the sanctity of human life and the family.”

READ MORE: Wisconsin Republicans block ban on ‘conversion therapy’

Such therapy has been discredited and is opposed by, among others, the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association, citing research that shows it leads to increased risk of suicide and depression.

“The mental health mainstream believes that one, that these practices don’t really work, and two, that they may cause harm,” said Dr. Jack Drescher, a Columbia University psychiatry professor and editor of the chapter on gender dysphoria in the psychiatric association’s diagnostic manual. “There’s no science on the side of people who believe in conversion therapy. There’s just faith and belief.”

Laws prohibiting mental health professionals from attempting to change a minor’s sexual orientation or gender identity are on the books in 22 states and Washington, D.C., according to the Movement Advancement Project, an LGBTQ+ rights think tank. In 13 states, including Iowa, some municipalities have adopted their own provisions.

The issue has the potential to come to a head in the next year if the U.S. Supreme Court decides early this fall to hear the appeal of a Washington state therapist, Brian Tingley, whose lawsuit was dismissed.

While early lawsuits similar to Tingley’s failed, a Supreme Court ruling in 2018 prompted a new round of cases, said Christy Mallory, legal director at the UCLA School of Law’s Williams Institute, which researches sexual orientation and gender identity. That ruling invoked free speech protections to block a California law that required anti-abortion centers to provide information about abortion.

In 2020, a panel of three federal judges in Florida relied in part on that 2018 ruling and became the first federal appeals court to block ordinances in Boca Raton and Palm Beach County that banned conversion therapy. Liberty Counsel represents the two therapists who won that case.

READ MORE: Minnesota governor restricts ‘conversion therapy’ for minors

The diverging federal rulings in the Washington and Florida cases may be a reason for the U.S. Supreme Court to weigh in this term, bringing another high-profile LGBTQ+ issue to the docket.

Staver is confident the Supreme Court will strike down bans in the near future. And Liberty Counsel has imminent plans to sue over statewide bans, he said.

“I think it is a losing proposition for any state or local government to have one of these laws, and they would be wise to repeal them before they also are sued,” Staver said.

In Iowa, Senate Democrats and a Republican in the House introduced bills for conversion therapy bans that didn’t make it out of subcommittees in 2020. That was the last time there was a concerted effort for a ban in the state, said Damian Thompson, public policy director at Iowa Safe Schools, an organization that advocates for LGBTQ+ children.

Meanwhile, in Iowa and elsewhere, laws have since been passed to prohibit teachers from raising gender identity and sexual orientation issues with students through grade six, to restrict the restrooms transgender students can use, and to ban treatments like puberty blockers and hormone therapy for trans minors. Many are facing challenges in court.

READ MORE: Utah bans conversion therapy for LGBTQ children

Republican lawmakers say the laws are designed to affirm parents’ rights and protect children. The issues have become flashpoints in the race for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.

But many parents and advocates worry about the deterioration of the rights and safety of LGBTQ+ kids.

In Waterloo, a city of over 65,000, Councilor Jonathan Grieder said he had heard concerns about conversion therapy happening in the area. He worked with Thompson at Iowa Safe Schools to draft an ordinance after watching statewide efforts stall but a ban pass in another Iowa city, Davenport, and in Linn County.

The Waterloo council approved it 6-1 in May, but overturned it 4-3 on Monday amid the prospect of costly litigation.

Archer Trip, of neighboring Cedar Falls, addressed the council before the repeal vote as a “survivor of conversion therapy” who had been placed there in high school.

“It does not work. Now, I am a proud queer man, but I am also here to protect everyone else,” Trip said. “We should protect our children.”

Archer’s twin sister, Nic Trip, who was also put in conversion therapy, testified: “Unfortunately, not all parents always make the safest decision for their children. What is the line of what is OK to do to our children?”

Mayor Quentin Hart said, not mentioning the Liberty Counsel, that there was “threat of impending litigation moving forward,” which put the members in a “tough situation.”

“I don’t believe that the Waterloo City Council are cowards,” Hart said. “I believe that they do have a decision to make tonight.”

The decision disappointed Thompson, who said Iowa Safe Schools will continue to advocate for local bans despite far-right groups’ success in turning a “common sense” issue into a “wedge culture war” one.

“Which is a shame,” Thompson said, “because in the meantime it only results in more kids being victimized and more kids, ultimately, receiving lifelong trauma.”

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