April 15, 2015 at 8:07 am EDT | by Chris Johnson
Despite Obama support, hurdles remain for bans on ‘ex-gay’ therapy
Valerie Jarrett, gay news, Washington Blade

Valerie Jarrett said the White House backs bans on “ex-gay” conversion therapy. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

The White House announcement in support of bans on “ex-gay” conversion therapy galvanized debate on prohibitions of the widely discredited practice for minors, but efforts to enact such measures throughout the country face significant hurdles.

In 2015 alone, legislation to ban the practice for minors has been introduced in at least 18 states. But non-related issues ranging from disputes over committee structure, Republican control and past failures stand in the way of these bills despite the statement from Valerie Jarrett, senior adviser to President Obama, endorsing a state-by-state approach in anticipation of “broader action” at later time.

States in which legislation to ban conversion therapy is pending include: Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nevada, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas, Vermont, Virginia and Washington State. Laws have already been enacted in California, New Jersey and D.C.

According to a brief from LGBT Movement Advancement Project made public after the White House statement, 83 percent of LGBT people throughout the country live in a jurisdiction where  “ex-gay” conversion therapy for minors remains legal.

The state with the best shot at passing a ban on conversion therapy is Oregon, where the Youth Mental Health Protection Act passed Oregon’s House last month with bipartisan support on a 41-18 vote.

Jeana Frazzini, executive director of Basic Rights Oregon, said the bill has strong support in the Senate, which will likely take up the bill later this month or in early May, and she expects Gov. Kate Brown, the first openly bisexual governor, to sign the bill.

“I think that the announcement from the president and the efforts from the White House really helped raised the visibility of this issue in a very positive way,” Frazzini said. “The strong statements underscoring how dangerous this practice is, how fully discredited it has been by every mental health national association in the country is a real boost to efforts like ours in Oregon.”

Other states seeing momentum on the issue include Illinois, New York and Washington State, but Republican control of the governor’s mansion or at least one chamber of the legislature, in addition to previous failures, loom over potential passage this time around.

In Illinois, a House committee approved the bill last month by a 9-5 vote. The legislature is in recess for the time being, but the full House must vote when it reconvenes before an April 24 deadline to ensure the Senate takes the measure this session.

Mike Ziri, director of public policy for Equality Illinois, said his organization plans to push legislation during a citizens lobby day on Wednesday.

“I do think the president’s announcement has brought a lot of very good attention to the issue,” Ziri said. “Now, I think, media, citizens and legislators are paying attention more closely, and saying, ‘Hey! What is the president talking about? This is important.'”

Both the Illinois House and Senate are controlled by Democrats, but the governor of the state is newly seated Bruce Rauner, a Republican who hasn’t yet commented on the bill.

If Rauner were to sign the legislation into law, he wouldn’t be the first Republican governor to enact a ban on “ex-gay” therapy. In 2013, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie signed into law a prohibition on the practice to minors in his state, saying in a signing statement he doesn’t believe being gay is a choice.

Another issue with the Illinois bill is the failure of the legislation to pass out of the House in the previous session. Last year, the Youth Mental Health Protection Act, was rejected by a 44-55 vote.

State Rep. Kelly Cassidy (D-Chicago), who sponsors the bill in the House, said the legislation came up on the last day of the session when many co-sponsors were away, saying she expects a different outcome this time around.

“We were just 20 votes short of people who we knew were going to ‘yeses,’ so it was just a tough day to have to run the bill,” Cassidy said.

In New York, legislation sponsored by Assembly member Deborah Glick (D-Manhattan) has passed the Higher Education Committee and awaits a vote in full Assembly before heading to the Senate.

Nathan Schaefer, executive director of the Empire State Pride Agenda, said the White House statement has drawn attention to the issue, but additional momentum is hard to gauge because the legislature is out of session until next week.

“There isn’t additional legislative progress since the president’s announcement, but there certainly is a lot more attention and visibility, which I think will certainly lend itself to success in the legislature as well,” Schaefer said.

Last year, the measure passed the Assembly, which is controlled by Democrats, by a 86-28 vote, but the measure never came up in the Senate under Republican control. The same political dynamic remains in place this around time around.

“We fully anticipate that it’ll go through next committee step and pass in the Assembly again in this legislative session,” Schaefer said. “The challenge then becomes where can it go within the New York State Senate because we know the Assembly will pass it. We know the governor is very supportive, so we totally anticipate he will sign it into law.”

Nonetheless, Schaefer was optimistic about the Republican-controlled chamber and hopes to obtain a commitment for a vote, noting unlike last year the Senate version of the legislation now has a GOP co-sponsor.

In Washington State, the Democratic-controlled House passed a ban on conversion therapy for minors one day after the White House statement on Friday by a vote of 60-37. But the issue is the same as New York, the legislation now heads to the Senate, which is under Republican control.

Monisha Harrell, board chair of Equal Rights Washington, said support at the national level from the White House created “greater national awareness,” but she’s not sure it’ll have an impact in her state.

“I don’t know what it’s going to do on the final vote on our bill though because in some ways, this can be seen as being made into partisan issue,” Harrell said. “This really isn’t a partisan issue. Children’s lives are not something that we should be playing politics with.”

In Iowa, where Republicans control both the governor’s mansion and the House, the path forward seems blocked, even though the Senate narrowly passed a ban conversion therapy last month by a 26-24 vote.

Matty Smith, a spokesperson for One Iowa, said he sees no evidence of the House budging on the legislation in the aftermath of the White House statement.

“This is extremely disappointing, because Iowa could have been ahead of the curve on banning the dangerous practice of conversion therapy for minors, and it wasn’t,” Smith said.

In Massachusetts, the most immediate problem facing the ban on “ex-gay” therapy is a dispute between the House and Senate over committee structure.

Don Gorton, a Massachusetts attorney who leads the coalition to pass the ban in the state, said he’s confident about a favorable hearing in the legislature on the “ex-gay” ban, but for the time being efforts are stalled.

“It’s a little disconcerting to be tied up for reasons that are beyond our control, but the White House statement has breathed fresh momentum into this initiative,” Gorton said. “This is a state in which President Obama is very popular, and his endorsement will be something that we can tout in the Democratic legislature. So, we’re very optimistic that it’s going to be helpful here and it came at the right time, but we’re stalled for reasons beyond our control.”

Gorton also had faith Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, would sign the legislation based on the White House statement and Christie to sign the New Jersey bill into law.

“I think the president’s position will box him in. He doesn’t like to be to the right of Obama on social issues,” Gorton said. “So I think if he’s trying to maintain a posture of being a supporter of LGBT rights, we’re optimistic he’ll do the right thing once we get through the legislature.”

In other states, the White House statement came as legislative sessions were coming to a close and too late for any impact on the current legislative session. That was the case in Virginia, which already faced an uphill task in passing the bill against “ex-gay” therapy because of Republican control in the Assembly.

James Parrish, executive director of Equality Virginia, said nonetheless the bill had momentum going forward and the White House statement may be beneficial in 2016.

“As we work here in Virginia to end so-called conversion therapy, it is meaningful to know that we have support from the White House,” Parrish said. “It’s unbelievable, really, that such a damaging practice – and one that is condemned by all the major health organizations – is still legal in almost all states. Being gay or transgender is not a choice, and we must do everything we can to protect and support all of our youth as they come to terms with who they are.”

In other states, like Ohio, where the Republicans control both chambers of the legislature and the governor’s mansion, the effort for the time being is geared toward building support from other institutions outside of the legislative process.

Grant Stancliff, communications director for Equality Ohio, said he would imagine additional discussion in this vein about the legislation as a result of the White House statement.

“Because Ohio is Ohio, we sometimes have to work angles in addition to the legislature to get equality for the community,” Stancliff said. “As a result, we’re working with members of the The Ohio Psychological Association the Ohio Chapter of the National Association of Social Work board to firm up policies that are explicit about ex-gay and conversion therapies. So far that seems to be working very well.”

In Minnesota, where Republicans control the Senate and the Democrats control the House, legislation introduced earlier in the session seems to have stalled.

Jacob Thomas, spokesperson for “Can’t Convert Love MN,” said an upcoming public effort will attempt to capitalize on the White House statement in anticipation of passage at a later time.

“It is our hope that through this awareness campaign—and the efforts of our coalition partners—we will be able to pass legislation that bans conversion therapy for minors and vulnerable adults in the next legislative cycle,” Thomas said.

While challenges remain for these bans in the state legislatures, the courts have been favorable to the laws. Just this week, the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the constitutionally of the New Jersey law for the second time, rejecting a challenge on the basis that it violates the rights of children and their parents. A petition seeking review of a separate decision in New Jersey is pending before the Supreme Court.

Action is also expected at the federal level. On Monday, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) announced he’ll introduce legislation next month to reform residential treatment programs, which his office says is relevant to the White House statement because some of them employ conversion therapy.

Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) on Tuesday introduced the “Stop Harming Our Kids” resolution, which calls on states to ban conversion therapy. According to her office, she’s also pursuing the possibility of a full federal ban, but “several surprisingly thorny technical issues” are in the way.

Samantha Ames, an attorney with the National Center for Lesbian Rights who leads the #BornPerfect Campaign against conversion therapy, said other efforts must be underway.

“So much of the importance of these laws is public education,” Ames said. “We are going to pass as many laws as we can and we are going to win as many court cases as we can, but the way that we are going to end conversion therapy in five years is by putting this industry out of business, and we do that through public education and empowerment.”

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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