A California state law that bans licensed mental health professionals from engaging in sexual orientation change efforts (often called reparative or conversion therapy) on clients under age 18 has been put on hold pending an April federal appeals court hearing over the law’s constitutionality.
The law was the first of its kind in the nation. Similar legislation was introduced in New Jersey in October, and was referred to committee, but no further action had been taken as of press time.
In California, the Liberty Counsel filed suit arguing that the law violates free speech rights. After a District Court judge rejected the lawsuit, it was appealed to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which blocked the law from taking effect as scheduled on Jan. 1 pending a hearing.
The California Psychological Association supported the bill, and while the American Psychological Association (APA) did not take a position on the legislation itself, it previously commissioned a task force on sexual orientation change efforts, which concluded that efforts to change sexual orientation are unlikely to be successful and involve some risk of harm. The APA adopted a policy statement that cautions parents and young people against therapies that are trying to change sexual orientation.
The Liberty Counsel represents several parents and their children – who are receiving such counseling – as well as several licensed counselors and other organizations, including The National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH).
Joseph J. Nicolosi, Ph.D., a psychologist and a NARTH founder, has practiced reparative therapy for many years at his California clinic and says claims that it is harmful are unsubstantiated and that it has been misrepresented.
“We are pleased because in order for them to put the injunction, they must think that there’s something significantly flawed with this particular law and the essential flaw is that it’s really restricting free speech for psychologists,” Nicolosi said. “This is a law that would be restricting the psychologist’s expression of his own professional opinion. There’s also another violation, which is the right of the client to hear the professional opinion of the psychologist that they are consulting with.”
Nicolosi says many mental health professionals falsely assume reparative therapy is “some kind of quacky, crazy treatment that is out of the bounds of psychotherapy.”
“The psychologists in this country have learned what reparative therapy is from political interest groups and not from their own colleagues who are practicing reparative therapy,” he says.
Nicolosi says the practice of reparative therapy is talk therapy.
“The problem with this particular law is that it is impossible to enforce. They cannot make the distinction between talk therapy and reparative therapy because it’s an artificial distinction.”
Mathew Staver, Liberty Counsel founder and chairman, says it would be difficult for mental health professionals to know where the line is crossed, under the law. “And yet your license (would be) at stake because it’s being raised for an ethical violation,” he says.
“This law is unprecedented in that no state has ever attempted before to ban a certain viewpoint on a counseling subject matter,” Staver says. “If the client does not want to act on a certain behavior, the counselor cannot help the client to reach their counseling goal.”
“The client has a right to be able to set their counseling goals and the right of self-determination, and they have a right to receive the kind of counseling that aligns with their goals and moral values. And the counselor has a right to be able to provide assistance to their clients to reach their goals.”
Such a law could also limit research on the subject, Staver says.
By Pamela Berard