At its second public policy discussion on conversion therapy, the Alachua County Commission voted unanimously Tuesday morning to continue development of an ordinance that will ban the practice in the county.
The ordinance is specific to conversion therapy for minors and sexual orientation.
Mike Durham and Jackie Chung from the county’s Office of Equal Opportunity presented the draft ordinance at the meeting. Chung said the ordinance will stand on its own, rather than being used to amend the county’s human rights ordinance, because conversion therapy is not a discrimination issue.
As currently worded, the ordinance would impose a $125 fine on therapists engaging in conversion therapy. However, members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community in Gainesville have recommended raising the fine to $250.
The commissioners and staff also will consider how to word the ordinance to ensure that it does not violate free speech rights.
On Feb. 1, According to the Tampa Bay Times, Amanda Arnold Sansone, a Tampa magistrate judge, issued a limited injunction allowing verbal communication about conversion therapy between counselor and client, which had been prohibited under a Tampa city ordinance. However, Sansone upheld the Tampa ordinance’s ban on use of electric shock in conversion therapy.
During public comment on Alachua County’s proposed ordinance, six people spoke. Four were for the ban, one was for a modification, and the last person spoke against the ban.
Doug Russell, a youth pastor at Union Baptist Church, 6259 SE 75th Ave in Newberry, said some students he works with do not know where they are in life. He agreed with Sansone that a conversion therapy ban would interfere with his ability to question young people about their sexual orientation decisions.
“My biggest concern is not being able to have the opportunity to have the conversation,” he said. “Not pushing my will on a student because I would never do that. But not being able to say, ‘Have you thought this out?’”
He said counselors should have the chance to give an opinion, a thought or an encouraging word on the matter.
Terry Fleming, co-president of the Gainesville Pride Community Center, commended commissioners for considering the conversion therapy ban.
“Obviously this is an important issue for the LGBTQ community,” Fleming, , said during public comment at the commission meeting. “And we really appreciate the county commission having a serious discussion about what this means.”
After reviewing the Tampa judgment, Fleming asked the commission to compile evidence that the coercive nature of conversion therapy harms minors and can constitute child abuse. Evidence of that sort would demonstrate a compelling government interest and would pass the strict scrutiny standard, which many ordinances fail. The standard checks for the constitutionality of an ordinance. It also determines whether the principle or the government’s interest against that principle is more important.
County Attorney Sylvia Torres recommended that commissioners make some changes to the ordinance to clarify that it would ban the conduct of conversion therapy, not conversation about it.
During public comment, Phil Coursen, senior pastor of Abundant Grace Community Church, said he had seen minors being helped by conversion therapy.
“I want to ask that you seriously take it into consideration that there are parents out there and young people who struggle – who may not want these desires and want help,” Coursen said. “And to limit therapists and whoever else… I don’t see any justice in that. How can you limit the speech of a therapist on a child who doesn’t want these desires?”
Coursen said he feels sorry for those who have had negative experiences with conversion therapy, but was adamant that he believes the therapy helps some people.
Larry Green, pastor of Westminster Church and a marriage and family counselor who specializes in sex therapy, said he receives calls every week from parents asking him to begin practicing conversion therapy.
“I am ethically prohibited, as is just about every mental health practitioner, from practicing conversion therapy,” Green said. “What we know happens is that for these people, when they go through this practice, it is not a voluntary thing in most cases.
“It is mom and dad bringing their kid because they want their kid to be a certain way. It is not the child saying, ‘I have a problem with my sexuality.’ It is the parent saying, ‘I have a problem with you.’”
Green described conversion therapy as a form of child abuse, linking it to the depression, emotional harm and suicidality patients have said they experienced during or after conversion therapy.
According to the a January 2016 article in the Journal of Medical Regulation, professional organizations such as the American Psychological Association, the American Psychiatric Association and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatrists have stated that there is no evidence that conversion therapy changes a patient’s sexual orientation. They say evidence shows that the practice is harmful.
County Commissioner Marihelen Wheeler, a retired middle school teacher, said she has seen the difference between engaging in conversation with her students rather than what conversion therapy would do.
Wheeler said she has an issue with the practice of teaching a child to feel as if there’s something wrong with them.
“I draw the distinction between a caring relationship, an adult and a child, and a professional direction that would make someone feel like something about them is not normal.”