Atlanta-based federal court: Can’t ban LGBTQ youth conversion therapy

The 11th U.S. Court of Appeals is one rung below the U.S. Supreme Court and hears cases from Georgia, Alabama and Florida. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM
The 11th U.S. Court of Appeals is one rung below the U.S. Supreme Court and hears cases from Georgia, Alabama and Florida. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

The federal appeals court in Atlanta has thrown out bans that prevented therapists from performing conversion therapy on children grappling with their sexual orientation and gender identity.

The court, in a 2-1 decision, struck down bans enacted in both Boca Raton and Palm Beach County, Florida. The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling sets precedent for the three states under its jurisdiction: Georgia, Alabama and Florida.

In Georgia, six Democratic lawmakers last year introduced the Youth Mental Health Protection Act to ban conversion therapy statewide, but the bill went nowhere.

Also last year, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms got the City Council to pass a resolution stating the city’s opposition to the practice. It also called on the state to enact a ban.

Practices that “inflict persecution and suffering on LGBTQ individuals — particularly young people — should end immediately,” Bottoms said.

The Florida bans were challenged by two licensed therapists who counsel minors with “unwanted same-sex attractions or unwanted gender identity issues,” said the 11th Circuit’s ruling, issued Friday. The therapists believe their speech-based therapy can help clients to reduce their same-sex behavior and attraction.

The city and county argued that the bans safeguard the physical and psychological well-being of minors and submitted reports and studies setting out the harms.

But Judge Britt Grant, writing for the majority, cited a 2009 report from the American Psychological Association that found there had been a complete lack of “rigorous recent prospective research” on the practice.

Former Georgia Supreme Court Justice Britt Grant now sits on the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta. (DAVID BARNES / DAVID.BARNES@AJC.COM)
Former Georgia Supreme Court Justice Britt Grant now sits on the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta. (DAVID BARNES / DAVID.BARNES@AJC.COM)

“This decision allows speech that many find concerning — even dangerous,” wrote Grant, joined by Barbara Lagoa, a fellow appointee of President Donald Trump.

“But consider the alternative,” Grant said. “If the speech restrictions in these ordinances can stand, then so can their inverse. Local communities could prevent therapists from validating a client’s same-sex attractions if the City Council deemed that message harmful.”

Grant wrote, “We understand and appreciate that the therapy is highly controversial. But the First Amendment has no carveout for controversial speech.”

Judge Beverly Martin/ Macon Telegraph
Judge Beverly Martin/ Macon Telegraph

Credit: Bill Rankin

Credit: Bill Rankin

In dissent, Judge Beverly Martin, a President Barack Obama appointee, said the city and county had a compelling interest in protecting minors from a harmful medical practice. And she cited “a mountain of rigorous evidence” that conversion therapy is dangerous and can cause depression and suicidal thoughts.

“The scientific and medical communities have done their jobs, the state has done its job and now it is time for us to do our job in the simple application of the law,” Martin wrote.

American Psychological Association president Sandra Shullman voiced grave concern over the ruling. “The scientific research since 2009 has greatly increased the evidence that participants in such efforts believe they were harmful,” she said.

In Other News