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Conservative group files lawsuit against N.J. ‘ex-gay’ therapy ban

Complaint argues Christie’s law violates freedoms of speech and religion

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Mat Staver, Liberty Council, gay news, Washington Blade
Mat Staver, Liberty Council, gay news, Washington Blade

Liberty Counsel founder Mat Staver has filed a lawsuit against New Jersey’s ban on “ex-gay” conversion therapy (Photo by Gage Skidmore).

A socially conservative group on Thursday filed a lawsuit in federal court in New Jersey that seeks to overturn the state’s ban on widely discredited “ex-gay” conversion therapy that Gov. Chris Christie signed into law this week.

The Liberty Counsel filed the 46-page complaint before the U.S. District Court of New Jersey against Christie, who signed a law on Monday barring sexual orientation conversation therapy for minors within his state, as well as other state officials.

The lawsuit alleges the law violates freedoms of speech and religion under the U.S. and New Jersey Constitutions. Additionally, the lawsuit contends the law violates parental rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

The group filed the lawsuit on behalf of two Christian counselors who practice sexual orientation conversion therapy and two fringe psychological groups that have endorsed it: the National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality, or NARTH, and the American Association of Christian Counselors.

“This law went into full effect immediately, upon being signed by Governor Christie on August 19, 2013, and thus time is of the essence to obtain judicial relief because plaintiffs, their clients, and the members of the plaintiff associations are currently suffering immediate and irreparable injury to their most cherished constitutional liberties,” the filing states.

Mat Staver, founder and chair of Liberty Counsel, said in a statement on the day the lawsuit was filed that the law is “a tyrannical overreach of government authority.”

“With this law, parents may face Child Protective Services investigating their home and even law enforcement taking their children if they seek change therapy,” he said said.

“Ex-gay” conversion is widely discredited and refuted by major mainstream psychological groups, such as American Psychological Association. In June, the largest ex-gay group, Exodus International, closed its doors after its executive director Alan Chambers issued an apology acknowledging “the pain and hurt others have experienced” through failed attempts at conversion therapy.

Still, plaintiffs in the lawsuit contend its effective. One of the plaintiff counselors, Tara King, identified as a lesbian and was in a same-sex relationship between the ages of 19 and 23. But after attending ex-gay conversion therapy at Exodus International, she, according to the complaint, left “the homosexual lifestyle 23 years ago and has experienced the change and reform that her Christian faith has brought into her life.”

King, who holds a Masters Degree in Christian counseling from Liberty University, in 2000 founded the King of Hearts Counseling Center in Brick, N.J., — a counseling center that focuses on counseling from a Biblical perspective.

The other plaintiff counselor in the lawsuit is Ronald Newman, a licensed psychiatrist who obtained advanced degrees in psychology from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. In 1998, Newman founded the Christian Counseling Consortium of South Jersey, which had engaged in providing ex-gay conversion therapy to minors.

The complaint adds that some of the individuals who decided to stop conversion counseling therapy with Newman “still benefitted from the counseling sessions despite deciding that their same-sex attractions, behaviors, or identity were not unwanted.”

“Newman and his patients are suffering and, absent injunctive relief, will continue to suffer irreparable harm as a result of A3371,” the lawsuit states. “By prohibiting minors from receiving SOCE counseling, A3371 has made a portion of Dr. Newman’s practice illegal and unethical.”

Liberty Counsel seeks a preliminary injunction enjoining the Christie administration and other state officials from enforcing the law, a permanent injunctions to the same effect, a declaratory judgment rendering the law unconstitutional, as well as nominal damages and compensation for court costs.

Wayne Besen, executive director of Truth Wins Out, which has spoken out about “ex-gay” therapy and its dangers, criticized the lawsuit as a waste of time for the judicial system.

“The Liberty Counsel has filed a frivolous lawsuit that confuses religious liberty with license to abuse LGBT youth,” Besen said. “The claim is without merit, relies on perpetuating junk science, and is in defense of a fraudulent product. With evidence and facts on our side, the Liberty Counsel is wasting time and money — similar to the clients of ex-gay therapists.”

Still, Liberty Counsel has achieved at least temporary success with filed a similar lawsuit known as Pickup v. Brown against the ex-gay therapy in ban in California. In January, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued an emergency injunction barring the California law from going into effect.

Christie’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request to comment on the lawsuit.

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Maryland

Hyattsville mayor dies by suicide

Kevin Ward and husband adopted son in D.C. in 2012

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Hyattsville Mayor Kevin Ward (Photo courtesy of the city of Hyattsville)

The city of Hyattsville released a statement on Wednesday afternoon announcing that their city’s openly gay Mayor Kevin Ward had died one day earlier by an apparent suicide.

“The city of Hyattsville reports with great sadness that our beloved Mayor Kevin Ward passed away yesterday, Jan. 25, from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound,” the statement says.

“Mayor Ward was a valued and trusted leader and a fierce advocate for all the people of Hyattsville,” the statement continues. “We are heartbroken at this loss and extend our deepest sympathy to the mayor’s family,” it says.

“No further information is available at this time,” the statement adds. “Details about services and remembrances will be shared when they are available.”

The Washington Post reported that U.S. Park Police disclosed that Ward was found deceased in Fort Marcy Park in McLean, Va., with a “self-inflicted gunshot wound.”

Ward, 44, became acting mayor of Hyattsville on Jan. 1, 2021, following the resignation of former Mayor Candace Hollingsworth. He was next in line to become mayor under the city’s political system in his then-position as president of the Hyattsville City Council.

He won election to complete the remainder of Hollingsworth’s term through 2023 in a May 11, 2021, special election, receiving 57.8 percent of the vote in a three candidate race, according to the Hyattsville election board. His closest opponent, Joseph Solomon, received 31.7 percent of the vote.

Nearby fellow gay mayors — Patrick Wojahn of College Park and Jeffrey Slavin of Somerset — said they got to know Ward through Maryland political circles and thought very highly of him.

“He was insightful, smart and dedicated,” Wojahn said. “He always seemed very confident and together as a person. And he had a great sense of humor.”

Slavin said he shared that remembrance of Ward, adding that he found Ward to be a “very nice person” dedicated to the people he served both as mayor and during his two terms on the Hyattsville City Council.

“There was noting in his public life that would have predicted this,” said Slavin in referring to Ward’s sudden passing.

The Washington Blade first reported on Ward in 2012 in a feature story on Ward and his then-domestic partner Chad Copeland when the two attended a ceremony at the D.C. Superior Court to complete the process of adopting their then-5-year-old son Norman. Ward and Copeland were among several gay couples who had their adoption papers signed by a judge at the ceremony.

On the website for his mayoral election campaign last year Ward said he and his family made Hyattsville their home in 2014 after he and his husband adopted their two sons.

“I am a pretty straightforward person,” he said in message to voters on his campaign website. “I believe in listening more than talking. But when I talk, I am not one to mince words or tell people what they want to hear,” he said. “I believe in doing the work. I believe that if I can help someone, then I can change her or his life,” he continued.

“This is why I dedicated my career to providing the best technology to education and to human services, to help as many people as I can,” he said.  

Ward was referring to his career in the field of educational and human services technology.

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Europe

French lawmakers outlaw conversion therapy

The National Assembly unanimously approved ban

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(Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

In a vote hailed by French President Emmanuel Macron, lawmakers in the National Assembly unanimously voted 142-0 on Tuesday to ban the discredited practice of so-called gay conversion therapy.

In a reaction to the vote, Macron tweeted: “The law prohibiting conversion therapy is adopted unanimously! Let’s be proud, these unworthy practices have no place in the Republic. Because being yourself is not a crime, because there is nothing to be cured.”

The law had already been passed by senators in December.

Those found guilty of so-called gay conversion therapy could face two years imprisonment and a €30,000 ($33,714.45) fine. The punishment could rise to three years in prison and a fine of €45,000 ($50,571.68) for attempts involving children or other particularly vulnerable people, Euronews reported.

“The practice of trying to “convert” LGBT+ people to heterosexuality or traditional gender expectations is scientifically discredited,” MP’s in support of the measure had argued previous to the final vote.

“We are sending out a strong signal because we are formally condemning all those who consider a change of sex or identity as an illness,” said Laurence Vanceunebrock, an MP with Macron’s ruling En Marche party.

Nearly every French MP who spoke on Tuesday echoed the same words; “there is nothing to cure.”

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Federal Government

Department of Education investigating BYU LGBTQ+ discipline policy

“They’ve wronged marginalized communities at BYU and they need to be held accountable for it” ~ former gay student at BYU

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Bradley Talbot, a former gay student at BYU (Photo courtesy of Bradley Talbot)

PROVO, Ut. – The U.S. Department of Education has opened an investigation into policies at Brigham Young University (BYU) that discipline LGBTQ students, aiming to determine whether or not the private religious school, owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), is violating their civil rights. 

The Education Department is investigating a complaint that came after BYU removed rules banning “homosexual activity” from its honor code in 2020, only to clarify weeks later that same-sex partnerships were still prohibited.

The probe, which opened in October of last year, will focus on Title IX, a law prohibiting universities from discriminating against students and others based on gender. 

Last year, President Joe Biden signed an executive order mandating every federal agency, including the Education Department, clarify that civil rights laws protect LGBTQ people from discrimination. However, religious schools have Title IX exemptions, making federal scrutiny rare.  

“It’s really significant that investigators are stepping in now,” Michael Austin, a BYU alumnus and vice president at the University of Evansville, told the Salt Lake Tribune. “It means there’s some reason to think the university has gone beyond the religious exemptions it has and is discriminating even beyond those.”

The investigation, headed by the Office of Civil Rights within the department, seems to be about whether faith-based exemptions apply even if the behavior is not directly related to education or expressly written in the honor code. BYU also bans alcohol, beards and piercings, among other things. 

BYU did not respond to the Blade’s request for comment. But a spokesperson told the Associated Press that the school does not anticipate any further action because “BYU is exempt from application of Title IX rules that conflict with the religious tenets” of the LDS.

Though the LDS has softened some of its rules around LGBTQ issues, the church remains opposed to same-sex marriage and sex outside of marriage. 

In a November 2021 letter to the Education Department, Kevin Worthen, president of BYU, argued that religious exemptions do apply to the school. The letter adds that all BYU students, faculty, administrators and staff “‘voluntarily commit to conduct their lives in accordance with the principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ.’”

The Department of Education responded to the letter, affirming that the university has some religious exemptions, but the department had to investigate if the complaint falls under those exemptions. 

An Education Department spokesperson confirmed the investigation to the Blade but declined further comment. 

Queer students at BYU celebrated the school’s removal of the anti-LGBTQ language in the honor code. Yet, the university announced weeks later that there was “some miscommunication” as to what the changes meant, clarifying that “the principles of the Honor Code remain the same.”

Bradley Talbot, a former gay student at BYU, was on campus during the apparent reversal, saying it “instilled a lot of fear and a lot of students.” 

“There are still a lot of feelings of betrayal and apprehension around it,” he told the Blade.

At BYU, students who hold hands or kiss someone of the same sex can face punishment, including expulsion. LGBTQ+ students face harsher discipline than heterosexual couples at the school. 

Talbot said he knew of “quite a few people” who lost their degrees and were kicked out during his time at BYU because of the gay dating ban. “People were turned in by roommates. Some people were turned in by their own parents,” he added. 

Courtesy of Bradley Talbot

The university’s clarification frustrated LGBTQ students, according to Talbot. In response, he organized a demonstration in March of 2021, lighting the “Y” that sits above BYU’s campus – one of the school’s oldest traditions – in rainbow Pride colors on the one year anniversary of the university’s letter sent to students that clarified the LGBTQ dating policy. 

“We did it to reclaim that traumatic day and spin in a positive light of support, love and unity to create more visibility and awareness,” said Talbot. “And also to take a stand that we weren’t going to put up with just being tossed around by BYU. We deserve to be a part of the BYU community and a part of the LGBTQ community.”

The school has since updated its policies, banning protests and other demonstrations on Y Mountain, where Talbot staged his demonstration, in December of last year. 

“Demonstrations should be consistent with BYU’s faith-based mission, intellectual environment and requirements described in the policy,” a statement added. 

Still, Talbot, who is now graduated, has hope that the Education Department’s investigation will “finally change” things at BYU. “This has been something that’s been going on for decades,” he said. “They’ve wronged marginalized communities at BYU and they need to be held accountable for it.”

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