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Palm Beach County, Boca Raton challenge federal ruling on 'conversion therapy'

Federal appeals court says Palm Beach County, Boca Raton violated First Amendment of U.S. Constitution
Posted at 11:14 AM, Dec 16, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-16 19:02:20-05

PALM BEACH COUNTY, Fla. — Palm Beach County and Boca Raton are challenging a federal ruling that says the county and city violated the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution by banning therapists from practicing "conversion therapy" on minors.

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 violated the First Amendment by preventing 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.

WPTV has learned that Palm Beach County and Boca Raton appealed that court's ruling on Dec. 11, asking the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit for a new hearing on the issue.

Officials from the county and city argued that while therapists can discuss their views on "sexual orientation change efforts" with their patients, they cannot provide medical treatment to their patients for "SOCE."

In a court filing, attorneys for the city and county said they "believe the majority opinion overlooked or misapprehended certain points of law or fact."

"The Ordinances target the quality and type of care that a licensed psychotherapist provides to a minor patient," the county and city argued in their motion. "Appellants remain free to discuss their views on SOCE (and even where to obtain SOCE from others) with their minor patients, their patients’ parents and others. What they could not do is provide medical treatment to their minor patients using that modality. Even though the modality of treatment is effectuated through speech, what is regulated and prohibited is the treatment protocol."

"All it strictly says is these kinds of therapys and treatments cannot be done with the city of Boca and Palm Beach County," said Boca Raton Councilman Andy Thomson.

Thomson said the city and county argue they made sure the ban was specific enough to avoid legality, saying a therapist can talk about conversion therapy, but they cannot practice it.

"This is an important issue and it's about protecting children here in Florida," said Rand Hoch with the Palm Beach County Human Rights Council.

Hoch is hoping the appeals court sends this back to the district court for a full trial, adding that if the ruling is upheld, it would put children in danger.

"It needs to go back to the trial court," Hoch said.

Liberty Counsel, which represents the therapists, said they feel a rehearing will not be granted.

"We have very strong precedent and they need to accept this as a huge defeat," said Mat Staver, the chairman and founder of Liberty Counsel.

As of Wednesday, a new hearing on the issue has not been granted by the federal appeals court.