Why gay activists see county's repeal of ban on conversion therapy as a strategic gain

Larry Keller
Special to The Post

In what some gay rights activists see as a strategic gain, the Palm Beach County Commission this week repealed an ordinance barring the contentious practice of conversion therapy on minors.

The action follows a vote this month by the Boca Raton City Council to overturn its similar ordinance banning the practice.

Both votes were hailed by a gay-rights activist who ironically helped draft the ordinances that now have been rescinded. In fact, he urged the actions taken to undo them.

“Good,” said Rand Hoch, president and founder, Palm Beach County Human Rights Council after the county commission vote.

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Hoch's organization pushed for the county and Boca Raton to repeal their ordinances because “we want to stop this from getting to the United States Supreme Court. The court is very different now than we started this project back in 2017,” Hoch said.

“It’s a strategic move,” Hoch said. “It’s a shame because … a lot of kids were protected.”

Rand Hoch

Both ordinances were adopted in 2017. They banned the practice of conversion therapy aimed at changing the sexual orientation or gender identity of minors via counseling and other means.

Marriage and family therapists Julie Hamilton in Palm Beach Gardens, and Robert Otto, in Boca Raton, sued in federal court. They were represented by Liberty Counsel, an anti-LGBTQ rights and anti-abortion rights organization.

They lost in federal court, but appealed. A three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals entered preliminary injunctions against the county and the city in November 2020 preventing them from enforcing the bans.

The county and Boca Raton then asked for a rehearing before the full court. It was denied, although some judges issued impassioned opinions in support of and in opposition to lifting the preliminary injunctions. Last month, the court issued a mandate finalizing its decision.

That prompted the Boca Raton City Council to reluctantly pass an emergency ordinance on Aug. 5 to reverse the city’s conversion therapy ban. “It’s not something I’m enjoying doing, but I understand the reasoning behind it,” Council member Monica Mayotte said at the time.

People gather for photographs after the ceremony for new rainbow-colored crosswalks in Northwood Village in West Palm Beach Thursday, June 3, 2021. The rainbow colors, a symbol of LGBTQ pride, are consistent with Mayor Keith James' vision of West Palm Beach as a community of opportunity for all, whereby anyone can achieve their dreams in our city.

County commissioners overturned their jurisdiction’s ordinance without discussion.

The 11th U.S. Circuit of Appeals ruling applies to three states, Florida, Georgia and Alabama, and only Florida has cities and counties with conversion therapy bans, Hoch said. If Palm Beach County or Boca Raton appealed, their case might eventually be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court.

“We don’t want the Supreme Court to rule on this because we feel they might make an adverse ruling” that would apply nationwide, Hoch said. “Right now I think there are 22 states that are not affected by this decision at all.”

Several Palm Beach County cities, including West Palm Beach and Lake Worth Beach have ordinances prohibiting conversion therapy still in effect. About 30 mental health professionals in Florida include conversion therapy in their practices, Hoch said.