US Supreme Court refuses case challenging bans on “conversion therapy”

Four judges of the US Supreme Court refused to hear a case challenging a Washington State law banning so-called "conversion therapy".

Someone holding an LGBTQ+ pride flag in front of the United States Supreme Court building

On Monday, December 10, the US Supreme Court moved to protect the rights and protections of LGBTQ+ youth around the country when the court refused to hear a case challenging a Washington State law banning so-called “conversion therapy”. By refusing to bring the appellate case to court, the Supreme Court upheld measures in Washington State, as well as in more than 20 other US states, banning the practice that claims to alter a minor’s sexual orientation or gender identity. 

At present, the Washington State law forbids licensed therapists from performing so-called “conversion therapy” practices on minors. The legislature defines “conversion therapy” as “efforts to change behaviors or gender expressions or to eliminate or reduce same-sex attractions of feelings”. The current legislature does, however, allow for state-licensed therapists to provide counselling that supports acceptance and understanding, a stance that is in line with many major medical groups across the country. 

In order for the appellate case to be considered by the Supreme Court, at least four of the court’s nine judges had to vote in favour of hearing the case. On Monday, only three judges indicated interest in potentially overturning Washington State’s current ban on so-called “conversion therapy”. These justices included Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Brett Kavanaugh, all of whom are conservatives. 

Justice Thomas, in a statement supporting his decision to consider the case, claimed that he was interested in trying the case due to its implications for the First Amendment, which guarantees American citizens the freedom of speech, press, and assembly, as well as the freedom to petition the government. Thomas went on to claim that there is “a fierce debate over how best to help minors with gender dysphoria” and that Washington State had “silenced one side of this debate” by banning so-called “conversion therapy” practices. 

Justice Alito similarly stated that the case brought forth issues of “national importance,” suggesting that the current ban’s alleged restrictions on free speech warranted careful scrutiny by the court.  

The decision to hear the appellate case on the “conversion therapy” ban was struck down by two-thirds of the US Supreme Court on Monday, including Justices Sotomayor, Kagan, Gorsuch, Barrett, Jackson, and Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. 

The case was brought to the court for consideration by Brian Tingley, a family counsellor represented by Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian law firm that has a history of anti-LGBTQ+ opposition. 

Tingley argued that the Washington State law banning so-called “conversion therapy” practices infringed upon his First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and religion. The US Court of Appeal for the Ninth Circuit ruled against Tingley’s appeal, however, stating that the government is well within its rights to regulate the way in which medical professionals conduct themselves, especially where minors are concerned.

Following Monday’s decision to uphold the Washington State ban, Janson Wu, the senior director for state advocacy and government affairs at The Trevor Project, celebrated the Court’s decision, saying: “The Court’s decision today to allow these protections to stand in place sends an affirming message to LGBTQ+ youth, their families, and survivors while honoring the victims we’ve lost to this abusive practice. Each time the question of whether these statewide protections are constitutional has reached the Court, the Supreme Court has consistently refused to intervene.”

Wu continued: “Protecting LGBTQ+ youth from conversion therapy is not controversial, yet there remain too many states who have yet to enact legislative protections. Even with today’s victory, there is still a long road ahead to ending conversion therapy. We hope that lawmakers take the Court’s decision today as an opportunity to implement vital protections against this practice.” 

This decision from the United States Supreme Court marks a significant moment in LGBTQ+ advocacy, especially as protections for LGBTQ+ youth are under fire in many parts of the country. 

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