Christian group sues PBC, Boca over bans on conversion therapy

Jane Musgrave
Palm Beach County Attorney Denise Marie Nieman (Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post)

Before the Palm Beach County Commission in December passed a law banning therapists from trying to convince gay youths they can become heterosexuals, County Attorney Denise Nieman warned her bosses they were inviting a lawsuit.

Her predictions were borne out this week when a conservative Christian group sued the county and the city of Boca Raton over their separate bans on so-called conversion therapy. In the suit filed in U.S. District Court, the Liberty Counsel claims the measures unconstitutionally restrict free speech and infringe on people’s religious beliefs.

Representing Palm Beach County family therapists Robert Otto and Julie Hamilton, attorneys for the Orlando-based group are asking a federal judge to strike down the laws and award the mental health counselors an unspecified amount in damages.

“The ordinances harm licensed counselors and their clients by prohibiting minors and their parents from obtaining the counseling services they choose … to resolve, reduce, or eliminate unwanted same-sex sexual attractions, behaviors, or identity,” wrote attorney Mathew Staver, founder and chairman of the Liberty Counsel.

Not only are youths and their parents prohibited from getting the help they want, Staver said the measures also create a Catch-22 for mental health professionals such as Otto and Hamilton. Otto is a Boca Raton therapist; Hamilton has an office in Palm Beach Gardens and is a co-editor of “The Handbook of Therapy for Unwanted Homosexual Attractions: A Guide to Treatment.”

As a result of the bans, mental health professionals have to choose whether to violate their professional ethical codes by denying their clients treatment or provide the treatment and violate the law, Staver wrote.

Nieman said she wasn’t surprised by the lawsuit, only its timing. “I thought they would wait until the case on the west coast of Florida played out,” she said of a lawsuit the group filed in Tampa, challenging a similar ban on conversion therapy.

Attorney Rand Hoch, who pushed the county and Boca to outlaw conversion therapy, predicted the lawsuit, like those filed elsewhere in the country, would fail. “They’ve lost every single lawsuit they filed,” said Hoch, president of the Palm Beach County Human Rights Council.

Staver acknowledged that bans on conversion therapy in California and New Jersey have withstood court challenges. But, he said, those cases involved state laws. “Local bodies adopting these ordinances is fairly new,” he said.

For years, Hoch and other activists have unsuccessfully tried to persuade the Republican-dominated Florida Legislature to impose a statewide ban. Since state lawmakers have refused to even consider the measure, he said he and others began lobbying local officials.

Conversion therapy is fraudulent and dangerous, Hoch said. “They are torturing our children with words,” he said. “They are using words to make kids feel horrible to the point of suicide.”

In the 60-page lawsuit, Staver points to a 2009 report by the American Psychological Association that found “there is a dearth of scientifically sound research on the safety” of what it calls sexual orientation change efforts.

Hoch countered that much has changed in the last nine years. Subsequent studies found that such therapy is ineffective and harmful, he said. Those studies convinced local officials to ban the practice, he said.

Palm Beach County and Boca Raton aren’t the only governments in the county that have banned conversion therapy. Others are: West Palm Beach, Lake Worth, Boynton Beach, Delray Beach, Greenacres, Riviera Beach and Wellington. Nationally, 13 states, Washington, D.C., and 37 cities and counties have banned the practice.