Story at a glance

  • A local ordinance in Boca Raton, Fla., banned conversion therapy, citing medical consensus against the practice.
  • Two therapists challenged the ordinance on the basis of their religious beliefs.
  • The Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit ruled in favor of the therapists.

A split decision struck down a local ordinance banning conversion therapy on Friday, raising questions about similar bans across the country. 

The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 in favor of two therapists, Robert Otto and Julie Hamilton, who brought the lawsuit against Boca Raton and Palm Beach County. The decision struck down a law that prohibits therapists from engaging in counseling or any therapy "with a goal of changing a minor's sexual orientation, reducing a minor’s sexual or romantic attractions (at least to others of the same gender or sex), or changing a minor’s gender identity or expression."

"This decision allows speech that many find concerning—even dangerous. But consider the alternative. If the speech restrictions in these ordinances can stand, then so can their inverse," said the court in the decision, going on to say, "It comes down to this: if the plaintiffs’ perspective is not allowed here, then the defendants’ perspective can be banned elsewhere."


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While the decision hinged less on the validity of conversion therapy than on the rights afforded by the First Amendment, the decision was ultimately a win for Otto and Hamilton, who cited “sincerely held religious beliefs conflicting with homosexuality” in making their case.

“This is a huge victory for counselors and their clients to choose the counsel of their choice free of political censorship from government ideologues. This case is the beginning of the end of similar unconstitutional counseling bans around the country,” Liberty Counsel Chairman Mat Staver said in a media release.

In a dissent, Circuit Judge Beverly Martin acknowledged the validity of a free speech argument, but disagreed that the ordinance was unconstitutional. 

“The majority is correct to say this case implicates sensitive considerations about when and how government bodies may regulate speech. Instances in which a speech restriction is narrowly tailored to serve a compelling interest are deservedly rare. But they do exist,” Martin wrote. 


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LGBTQ+ advocates were quick to condemn the decision. 

"Conversion therapy is fraud. 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,” said Amit Paley, CEO and Executive Director of The Trevor Project, in a statement via email.

LGBTQ+ youth who underwent conversion therapy were more than twice as likely to report having attempted suicide as those who did not, according to research by the Trevor Project, a suicide prevention nonprofit focused on the LGBTQ+ community. The American Medical Association rejects the premise of conversion therapy entirely, saying "empirical evidence has demonstrated that homosexuality and trans and non-binary gender identities are normal variations of human identity and expression, not inherently linked to mental illness."

“This misguided decision sends a terrible message to the LGBTQ young people of Florida, who want nothing more than to be respected for who they are,” added Paley.

Still, the Trevor Project emphasized that the decision is an “outlier,” noting that similar bans in 20 states, including California, New Jersey, Oregon, Illinois and Washington, D.C., and more than 80 localities have been upheld by federal appeals courts, citing scientific evidence that they may cause harm to patients. 

Attorneys for Palm Beach County and the City of Boca Raton told media outlets the legal teams were still weighing their options after the decision last week. 

“This is a difficult legal issue, as evidenced by the split decision,” Jamie Cole, a partner with Weiss Serota Helfman Cole & Bierman P.L. and co-counsel for the City of Boca Raton, said via email to the Los Angeles Blade. “The city is disappointed with the majority decision, but agrees with the well-written and well-reasoned dissent. The city is analyzing the decision to determine how to proceed.” 


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Published on Nov 24, 2020