By: Curtis Schube
The Allegheny County Council is proposing a sweeping ordinance to ban all forms of counseling for minors who experience unwanted same-sex attraction or feelings of identifying with the opposite sex. This ordinance, if passed, would be one of the most extreme and expansive of its kind. Allegheny County residents should be alarmed.
The proposed ordinance seeks to ban so -called “conversion therapy” or “reparative therapy” — but is so sweeping that it would actually prohibit any and all counseling to aid minors who seek help for unwanted same-sex attraction or feelings of identifying with the opposite sex. And this is where much of the trouble with this proposal lies.
Many who hear the term “conversion therapy” mistakenly envision forms of treatment such as shock therapy, abusive therapy as seen in movies, or forced treatment where the minor in question does not want to participate. However, counselors who provide services to help same-sex attracted or gender dysphoric minors already reject these methods. Instead, therapists use a variety of methods such as talk therapy to help their patients reach their goals.
However, ordinances such as the one introduced in Allegheny County do not differentiate between harmful and helpful treatments. These laws ban both — as if they are all the same–by banning therapy goals rather than methods. This is wrong, especially given studies that tell us that when a same-sex attracted or gender dysphoric person has their own therapy goals that aim to reduce those feelings or cope with those feelings, a skilled counselor can help that person achieve their goals. However, Allegheny County’s ordinance would in effect punish those seeking help and treatment by making such help not only unavailable, but illegal.
Many other jurisdictions have therapy bans already in place, the City of Pittsburgh included. However, each of the other bans in Pennsylvania are limited to licensed counselors. These bans are bad enough. A minor who experiences unwanted feelings cannot get help from the very people who are trained to help them. Minors should not be limited to only their pastor or a friend to help them deal with unwanted feelings.
However, Allegheny County wants to go even further. The County’s proposed ordinance would ban licensed counselors, unlicensed counselors, volunteers, or even pastors and priests from helping these minors. The ban includes any “efforts to change behaviors” or “to eliminate or reduce sexual or romantic attractions or feelings toward individuals of the same sex, regardless of whether such attempt is the primary goal of treatment.” Thus, even if a counselor accidently reduces a patient’s same-sex attraction during the course of treatment for some other issue, he or she would violate this law. And, even if the context is harmful or inappropriate, such as an obsession with same-sex pornography or intense attraction to a same-sex teacher or married same-sex neighbor, the law would prevent a counselor from helping the minor reduce or abstain from acting on those impulses.
Additionally, a ban such as this is unconstitutional. Last summer, the Supreme Court in NIFLA v. Becerra expressly identified “professional speech” as protected speech under the First Amendment. The Court identified two cases that had upheld these therapy bans as wrongly decided, which has already led to a therapy ban like this one being overturned in Florida. There are lawsuits around the country challenging these laws. If Allegheny County passes this ordinance, it risks costly litigation.
It would be an injustice for Allegheny County to pass this ordinance. It is contrary to freedom to prevent minors from seeking help, for whatever issue they struggle with. With the primary elections coming on May 21, the readers of this article should know what their council-member’s stance is on this proposed ordinance. Call and ask. Then, vote accordingly.
Curtis Schube is legal counsel for the Independence Law Center, a Pennsylvania-based pro-bono legal organization.