In a 5-2 vote Tuesday, the Palm Beach County Commission gave final approval to a ban on the practice of conversion therapy on minors by state-licensed practitioners, although it will continue to watch a similar ordinance in Tampa that has received a legal challenge.
The approval makes Palm Beach County the first county in Florida to approve such a ban. Several county municipalities, including Wellington, West Palm Beach, Lake Worth, Delray Beach, Boynton Beach and Riviera Beach, have adopted similar ordinances.
Wellington’s approval drew many of the same proponents and opponents as the county review of the ordinance, where several dozen people spoke or submitted speaker cards for and against the proposal.
The final version included two changes as a result of conversations by staff with Dr. Julie Hamilton, an outspoken opponent of the ordinance, and concerns raised by Commissioner Steve Abrams at the preliminary hearing on Dec. 5.
The first removes a clause discussing the American Psychological Association’s task force on appropriate therapeutic responses to sexual orientation in response to discussions with Hamilton. The second is in response to direction from Abrams to alter the definition of conversion therapy, removing the mention of counseling or treatment, to say “conversion therapy means the practice of seeking to change an individual’s sexual orientation or identity.”
The ordinance now mimics a New Jersey state law that was upheld in a couple of cases by the federal courts, according to staff.
County Attorney Denise Nieman said it was brought to staff’s attention that a very similar ordinance adopted in Tampa was under judicial review.
“We had a chance to review that complaint since the last meeting, and it really is an ordinance similar to ours,” Nieman said. “I would strongly recommend that the board not take action on this, but to hold off and direct staff to monitor the court proceedings. That way we can learn and have a federal court case in Florida as to what the law is in Florida.”
Although staff had made concessions in the ordinance, Hamilton, a licensed therapist in Palm Beach Gardens, continued her opposition to the ordinance, along with several other local therapists and religious leaders, saying that a lawsuit would inevitably be filed against the county if it passes.
“Taking out the word ‘counseling’ and keeping the word ‘practice’ is really not a change at all,” she said. “As therapists, the only practice we engage in is talking. We listen, we ask questions, we have conversations, so that is our practice. It is a speech violation.”
Hamilton said that there is no such thing as “conversion therapy.”
“We do the same thing with all our clients,” she said. “We talk to them, whether it is substance abuse, eating disorders, homosexual attractions; whatever it is, it is the same thing. Conversion therapy is a made-up term by activists, defined by activists. It does not describe what we do.”
Dr. Rachel Needle, a licensed psychologist and certified sex therapist, said some of the claims she has heard from local therapists were disturbing to her.
“You heard a lot of comments about how this ordinance will prevent free speech and prevent mental health services,” Needle said. “They even went as far as saying you’re banning a goal and that we’re going to be calling you to ask, ‘Is this OK?’ or abandoning a client. First of all, that could not be further from the truth. All this is doing is saying that you cannot claim to change or convert someone’s sexual orientations or attractions, because there is no evidence that doing so is possible, and there is evidence that it can produce harm.”
She added that conversion therapy is not based on science or evidence, and has not been shown to be effective. “Research has shown that it can cause harm to minors,” Needle said. “Opponents of the ban have also mentioned child sexual abuse as being the cause of being gay… The first rule that I have learned as a researcher is that correlation does not equal causation.”
Needle added that the American Psychological Association concluded that conversion therapy may cause serious risks of harm, such as confusion, depression, guilt, helplessness, hopelessness, shame and social withdrawal.
“Rather than strengthening the messages of hate and disapproval, contributing to LGBTQs in our society feeling badly about themselves, and increasing shame, with this ordinance you have the ability to protect them and change this message to one of acceptance and love,” she said.
Retired Judge Rand Hoch, president and founder of the Palm Beach County Human Rights Council, said that for almost three decades, Palm Beach County officials have enacted laws and policies to protect LGBTQ people.
“As a result, Palm Beach County is now one of the safest places in the world for LGBTQ people to live, study, work, create families, raise children and retire,” Hoch said. “Enacting this ordinance will serve as a model for other counties around the state and the nation. For the past 18 months, I have had to endure people suggesting to elected officials that gay people are God’s mistake, and then go on to say that they are the ones who can fix the mistakes through therapy. How arrogant. I have been taught that each one of us was created in God’s image. I have been taught that God does not make mistakes, and I believe those statements to be true. I also believe the statements and conclusions from virtually every mainstream scientific medical, psychiatric and psychological organization in this country that conversion therapy is ineffective and it causes harm to children.”
Commissioner Hal Valeche asked Hoch about two complaints regarding conversation therapy that were registered with the HRC and where they came from and what the disposition was.
Hoch said they received complaints from the mothers of gay people because the gay children’s friends, who also identified as gay, were being subjected to conversion therapy.
“There’s nothing we can do about that unless you act today, so these kids are still being forced to go to therapists who are telling them that God does not love them,” Hoch said.
“Isn’t there some recourse for the parent if they feel their child has been harmed by a professional?” Valeche asked.
“The parents are the ones who are causing the harm to their children by sending them to therapy,” Hoch said. “There is no recourse.”
Commissioner Paulette Burdick made a motion to approve the ordinance, but Abrams said he was concerned about the county attorney’s recommendation to postpone the item until a ruling comes down from the Tampa ordinance.
The ordinance carried 5-2, with Valeche and Abrams opposed.