Florida judge rules conversion therapy ban would 'limit parental rights'

In a ruling published on Friday, a Florida district judge stated that a ban on conversion therapy would go against the laws of the state. 

Image of a Florida courthouse with a blue sky above it

District Judge William Jung ruled on Friday that Tampa’s ban on conversion therapy would negatively impact “Florida privacy rights and rights to parental choice in healthcare.”

The city of Tampa, Florida, recently introduced a legal ordinance, or a permanent rule, “prohibiting sexual orientation change efforts on minors during licensed psychotherapy and counselling” – in other words, effectively banning conversion therapy in the City District. 

However, this was challenged by Robert Vazzo, a marriage and family therapist, and Christain ministry New Hearts Outreach, an organisation which runs the sort of therapy which had been banned. The ruling was published on October 4. 

Vazzo, who is a marriage and family therapist, has previously denied that conversion therapy is harmful, and has previously stated in an interview: “I view homosexuality as a type of fetish where the object happens to be human.” 

The court ruled that local governments do not have the authority to regulate any sort of counselling because it is the business of the state. The 41-page ruling states that “There is no grant of authority by the Florida Legislature to municipalities to substantively regulate healthcare treatment and discipline.

“The City has never before substantively regulated and disciplined the practice of medicine, psychotherapy, or mental health treatment within City limits. Nor does the City possess charter or home rule authority to do so.”

Jung continued to cite a 2009 American Psychological Association report that no study has come up with a definitive answer to whether conversion therapy produces positive or negative results. He also stated that because of the lack of provision for other health care related services such as tattoo parlours, massage therapy and aquapuncture, this particular issue could not be regulated either.

The ruling also went into detail about the “fundamental” rights of parents in terms of the healthcare of their children. 

New Hearts Outreach, who also challenged the ordinance, is a “Christian counselling service” which offers support groups and one-on-one counselling to those who undergo conversion therapy with them. Their website cites their motto is “Glorifying God by Connecting the Sexually & Relationally Challenged to Jesus Christ.”

Mat Staver, the chairman of Liberty Counsel – which was designated by the Southern Poverty Law Centre as an “anti-LGBT+ hate group” – stated in response to the rulings: “This is a great victory for counsellors and clients…This ruling also shows clearly why the other statewide laws will meet the same fate as Tampa. The First Amendment will wipe away every one of these speech-restrictive laws.” 

Conversion therapy has increasingly made headlines over the past few years, with a slew of recent studies about the adverse effects the practice has on its participants increasingly difficult to ignore, except perhaps by certain Florida judges. A UK study earlier this year discovered that one-fifth of participants had attempted suicide, and a US study found that conversion therapy is particularly harmful to members of the transgender community. 

It is an especially common practice in the US, where organisations of the kind described above stand to lose a lot of profits if laws such as the Tampa ordinance are allowed to remain in place. 

Nadine Smith, executive director of Equality Florida, a group that advocates for the rights of Florida’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community, stated in response to Friday’s ruling: “What is clear…is that conversion therapy bans that protect children from this dangerous quackery are not unconstitutional. 

“Florida should join the states that have eliminated this debunked and dangerous practice.”

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