A federal appeals court today overturned a lower court ruling and struck down local ordinances prohibiting licensed therapists from practicing the debunked “conversion therapy” on minors. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit issued a 2-1 opinion overturning Otto v. City of Boca Rotan, citing violations of First Amendment protections on freedom of speech in their decision. The majority opinion written by two Trump-appoint jurists was met with widespread opposition and concern from medical experts and the LGBTQ+ community.
“Conversion therapy is fraud,” Amit Paley, chief executive officer and executive director of Trevor Project, tells Out in a statement. “No matter how hard you try, you cannot change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. This so-called therapy has only ever proven to produce negative mental health outcomes and increase the risk of suicide.”
Conversion therapy is any set of methods or practices that seek to alter a person's gender identity and/or sexuality. They range from “praying the gay away” to torture. Evidence shows that these practices are not only ineffective, but result in depression, and even suicide attempts — Trevor Project research showed that LGBTQ+ youth who underwent the process were more than twice as likely to report having attempted suiced as those who did not. In the United States, the practice is opposed by a wide range of groups, including American Academy of Pediatrics, American Medical Association, American Psychological Association, and Human Rights Campaign. Countries like Germany, Malta, Ecuador, Brazil, and Taiwan have all banned the practice.
“Every person in this country should be concerned by federal courts ignoring science and striking down laws that protect vulnerable young people from dangerous and unethical practices by licensed mental health providers,” Mathew Shurka, co-founder and chief strategist of Born Perfect, writes in an email. “Today’s decision showed a shocking disregard for the overwhelming medical consensus that conversion therapy is harmful and dangerous, and that no young person should ever be subjected to this practice under any circumstances.”
The decision rested on whether the content-based regulation of speech codified in the ordinances was too broadly tailored to serve a compelling state interest. A lower court had upheld the bans in Boca Rotan and the County of Palm Beach in Florida, citing the overwhelming health risks involved in the practice. Today’s majority opinion written by U.S. Circuit Judge Britt Grant and joined by fellow judge Barbara Lagoa, ignored the advice of the medical community to overturn the earlier ruling. Both judges were appointed by Trump, and Lagao had been mentioned as a possible replacement for the late Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg who passed away earlier this year. Her seat instead went to Amy Coney Barrett.
“Mitch McConnell and the Senate GOP have packed the lower courts with judges who are committed to undermining LGBTQ+ rights,” tweeted Mondaire Jones, the U.S. Representative-elect who will make history as one of the first Black gay congressman upon taking office in January. “They’ll be handing down decisions like these, which condemn LGBTQ+ youth to torture, long after Donald Trump leaves office.”
Shannon Minter, legal director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, tells Out today’s ruling “ignores a ‘mountain of rigorous evidence’ that conversion therapy puts minors at risk of serious harm.” Minter, who uses the pronouns he/him, notes that two other federal courts of appeal have upheld similar laws, ruling they were “valid exercises of the government’s authority to protect public health and safety.”
The Eleventh Circuit covers the states of Florida, Georgia, and Alabama, with Associate Justice Clarence Thomas serving as the Circuit Justice. Minter points out that today’s ruling applies only to these three states.
“As a practical matter, it applies only to local laws enacted in Florida, since neither Georgia nor Alabama have enacted any conversion therapy laws,” he explains.
Paley agrees, calling the decision “an outlier” and noted that “all other federal appeals courts have upheld similar protections against conversion therapy.” Regardless of the ruling, he says The Trevor Project “will continue working to correct this wrong decision and to remind all LGBTQ young people that they deserve love and support.”