Palm Beach County, Boca Raton give up fight over conversion therapy ban

Palm Beach County and Boca Raton must pay thousands of dollars to two South Florida counselors who sued them for banning conversion therapy on LGBTQ children and teens.

Hannah Phillips
Palm Beach Post

WEST PALM BEACH — Palm Beach County and Boca Raton owe nearly $200,000 to two South Florida counselors who offer to steer LGBTQ children and teens away from "unwanted homosexual attractions" — a practice known as conversion therapy and that has prompted legal battles across the country.

It's the latest blow to county and city lawmakers who banned the practice in 2017 on the grounds that it causes more harm than good. Conversion therapy, which has been linked to depression and suicidal thoughts among young people, is rooted in the belief that homosexuality is a mental disorder that can be overcome with extended counseling.

Backed by a team of attorneys from a conservative Christian organization, therapists Robert Otto and Julie Hamilton sued Palm Beach County and Boca Raton in 2018 over the bans, which they said violated their freedom of speech and that of their clients. U.S. District Judge Robin Rosenberg ruled against the therapists in 2019, but they won on appeal one year later.

Julie Hamilton, one of two local therapists who sued Palm Beach County and Boca Raton for banning conversion therapy, spoke at the Palm Beach County Commission's July 12, 2016, meeting to oppose the proposed ban. (Palm Beach County video)

Palm Beach County and Boca Raton tried and failed to have the case reheard in 2022, agreeing this month to pay the therapists $175,000 and end the lawsuit for good.

The move follows others like it to resolve the case regionally instead of pushing it to the Supreme Court, where some fear an adverse ruling could kill conversion therapy bans across the country. The Boca Raton City Council and the county commission repealed their bans in August at the behest of the gay-rights activist who helped draft them.

"It’s not something I’m enjoying doing, but I understand the reasoning behind it,” council member Monica Mayotte said at the time.

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Otto derided their decision during an interview Wednesday. If local leaders really believed he and Hamilton were a threat to children in the community, they would have appealed the ruling and "fought until the very end," he said.

"They didn't have the courage to do that, because it wasn't about that," he said. "It was never about that. This was about a movement to push bans across our nation."

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Otto doesn't offer gender-affirming care — an approach that embraces children and teenagers who come out as transgender — but insisted he would consider it as much of a constitutional affront if lawmakers had banned that practice instead.

The debate over conversion therapy distracts from the real reason he took the government to court in the first place, he said: freedom of speech. Freedom for his patients to discuss whatever they want, regardless of whether the government likes it.

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Otto is owed $50,000 from the county and an additional $50,000 from the city. Hamilton, who 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," will get $50,000 from the county and $25,000 from the city. Hamilton did not respond to requests for comment.

Both were represented by the Orlando-based nonprofit Liberty Counsel, which the Southern Poverty Law Center has classified an "anti-LGBTQ hate group." Its founder, Mat Staver, said they plan to seek an additional sum "in the million-dollar range" to cover legal fees.

He pushed back against the term conversion therapy, arguing instead that Otto and Hamilton offer talk therapy to patients struggling to overcome unwanted same-sex attraction, which he likened to an eating disorder.

"We just sit down and talk," Staver said Tuesday. "You don't touch them. You don't snap rubber bands on them."

There's no electroshock therapy either, he said, adding that Otto and Hamilton offer treatment based on what the patient wants — not what their parents do.

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Medical professional organizations have long denounced services intended to change a person's sexual orientation or gender identity, electrodes or no. The American Psychological Association found in 2009 that conversion therapy is ineffective and can cause harm, contributing to some teens' feelings of confusion and despair.

The report found that people distressed by their sexual orientation benefit from interventions emphasizing acceptance, support and recognition; gender-affirming care.

About 16,200 Floridians between ages 13 and 17 identify as transgender, according to a 2022 report from UCLA’s law school. The same study found that the total number nationwide is much higher than previous estimates, a trend mirrored in countries that collect national data on transgender youth, like the Netherlands and in the United Kingdom.

Twenty states and the District of Columbia have passed conversion therapy bans for minors, according to research by the nonprofit think tank Movement Advancement Project. Palm Beach County was the first in Florida to pass its own ordinance, and its ultimate defeat is wind in Liberty Counsel's sails.

“It’s just a matter of time for us to get one of these cases back to the U.S. Supreme Court," Staver said. "The Supreme Court will, without question, strike these laws down around the country."

It's not a matter of if, he said, but when.

Hannah Phillips is a journalist covering public safety and criminal justice at The Palm Beach Post. You can reach her at hphillips@pbpost.com.