State legislatures in New Jersey and Massachusetts are considering banning conversion therapy for minors while a federal court decides on the constitutionality of such a ban in California.
In New Jersey, nearly identical bills that would prohibit psychologists and other licensed mental health professionals from counseling to change the sexual orientation of anyone under 18 have been assigned to committees.
A bill that would ban conversion therapy (or reparative therapy, as it is sometimes called) was introduced in late January by State Rep. Carl Sciortino, a Medford Democrat, in the Massachusetts legislature.
In December 2012, a three-judge panel of the Ninth District Federal Court of Appeals agreed to block the first-in-the-nation California law banning con-version therapy, which was slated to go into effect Jan. 1, until the full court could decide on the law’s constitutionality. A district court judge initially reject-ed a suit by Liberty Counsel, whose clients included a 15-year-old boy undergoing conversion therapy, and the Christian-oriented legal group appealed the decision to the Ninth Circuit.
Opponents of the California law said it would violate freedom of speech and the therapist-patient relationship.
The New Jersey legislation was introduced in the state Senate in late 2012 by Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney, a Cumberland Democrat; Democratic Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg of Teaneck and Raymond J. Lesniak, an Elizabeth Democrat.
The measure is backed by the New Jersey Psychological Association. Josephine Minardo, executive director of the association, noted the national consensus against conversion therapy. “All the major national psychological, psychiatric and counseling associations, including the APA, have found that this kind of therapy is actually very harmful,” she said.
Minardo said the association’s stand on the legislation puts it in the position of backing a bill restricting therapy that some members provide. “We have just cautioned that we have concerns about legislating specific types of treatment and we don’t want it to set a precedent.”
The bill prohibits licensed therapists from attempting to change children’s sexual orientation, including efforts to change “behaviors or gender expressions, or to reduce or eliminate sexual romantic attractions for feelings toward a person of the same gender.”
Sweeney said those who think they can change people’s sexual orientation have an outdated view. “Kids are under enormous peer pressure to start with and being a kid and being homosexual, it’s a lot of stress in the school environment to start with and the one place you look for support is your family.”
Similar legislation was introduced in the New Jersey Assembly by Assemblymen Timothy Eustace, a Bergen County Democrat, and John Burzichelli, a Paulsboro Democrat. That bill has been assigned to the Women and Children Committee.
“If adults want to engage in processes to change their life, that’s an adult decision,” Burzichelli said.
The Jersey City-based Jews Offering New Alternative for Healing (JONAH) oppose the bill. JONAH founder Arthur Goldberg said legislators don’t understand “both sides of the equation. There are literally hundreds and hundreds of people who have successfully changed” sexual orientation through therapy.
The Southern Poverty Law Center has filed a civil action against JONAH, maintaining that the organization is committing consumer fraud by offering sexual orientation conversion therapy.
In a related matter, a bill to ban conversion therapy for minors was introduced late in the last session of the Pennsylvania legislature but never received a hearing.
The Oregon Democratic Party passed a resolution recently calling on the state legislature to ban conversion therapy for minors.