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Bans on conversion therapy in Palm Beach County, Boca Raton violate First Amendment, court rules

Therapists are banned from treating minors through 'sexual orientation change efforts'
Posted at 11:50 AM, Dec 02, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-02 18:37:08-05

PALM BEACH COUNTY, Fla. — A federal appeals court has ruled that Palm Beach County and the city of Boca Raton have violated the First Amendment right of free speech in the U.S. Constitution by banning therapists from practicing "conversion therapy" on minors, which is attempting to change their sexual orientation.

In 2017, the county and city passed ordinances which ban medical providers from treating minors with "any counseling, practice or treatment performed with the goal of changing an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity."

Robert Otto and Julie Hamilton, licensed marriage and family therapists based in Palm Beach County, sued the county and city of Boca Raton, arguing the ordinances violate the First Amendment and prevent them from speaking freely with clients.

On Nov. 20, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit agreed with Otto and Hamilton, ruling that the ordinances "violate the First Amendment because they are content-based regulations of speech that cannot survive strict scrutiny."

Otto and Hamilton said their goal is to provide "sexual orientation change efforts" through speech therapy.

The court ruled that "this decision allows speech that many find concerning—even dangerous. But consider the alternative. If the speech restrictions in these ordinances can stand, then so can their inverse. Local communities could prevent therapists from validating a client’s same-sex attractions if the city council deemed that message harmful. And the same goes for gender transition—counseling supporting a client’s gender identification could be banned."

It's unclear how this ruling will immediately impact the bans on conversion therapy in Palm Beach County and Boca Raton.

Mat Staver, the chairman and founder of Liberty Counsel, the law firm representing Otto and Hamilton, said this in a statement:

“This is a huge victory for counselors and their clients to choose the counsel of their choice free of political censorship from government ideologues. This case is the beginning of the end of similar unconstitutional counseling bans around the country.”

"I was so proud when Palm Beach County had banned it because it is such a barbaric practice that should not be happening in 2020," said Amanda Kanete, who works with the youth programs at the Compass Community Center, a place where children and adults within the LGBTQ community can get help.

Kanete said she's disappointed by the new ruling because she feels the ordinance helped stop therapists from taking advantage of children who need help.

"There is already that internalized struggle that any LGBTQ person goes through of trying to figure out who they are," Kanete said.

"The bottom line is protecting children from harm," said Rand Hoch with the Palm Beach County Human Rights Council who worked to get the ordinances passed in Palm Beach County.

Hoch said the next steps fall to the county and city of Boca Raton, which can ask for a rehearing in front of all 12 judges within the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.

The county and city have until next week to file those documents.

Boca Raton Councilman Andy Thomson said the city is now weighing its options on the next legal steps.