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Palm Beach County passes ordinance banning conversion therapy

Posted at 4:15 PM, Dec 19, 2017
and last updated 2017-12-19 20:23:40-05

Palm Beach County commissioners made a controversial decision on Tuesday to ban conversion therapy.

The decision comes after at least a year of planning and discussion, with amendments and revisions made to the ordinance before a final vote was made.

Conversion therapy is defined as a form of treatment aimed at changing a person's sexual orientation.

Palm Beach County has now become the first county in the state of Florida to ban conversion therapy.

Before a vote was made, the discussion had tempers and opinions flaring, with dozens of people signing up during the public comments portion of the agenda.

“Let’s not allow one more young person to hurt themselves because of this inhumane practice," said local therapist Andre Torrence. “Young people who are subject to this barbaric treatment can become suicidal or have drug problems."

Supporters of the ban say conversion therapy is a danger to young people, who are told that being gay, lesbian, bisexual transgender is unnatural and wrong.

"With this ordinance, you have the ability to protect them and change this message to one of acceptance and love," said Dr. Rachel Needle, a licensed psychologist in West Palm Beach, during public comments.

"Without the law, these kids are helpless," added Rand Hoch, founder of the Human Rights Council of Palm Beach County. “I’ve been taught that God doesn’t make mistakes.”

But those who oppose the ban, including several therapists like Dr. Julie Hamilton, see the move as a infringement on free speech rights.

“It is a speech violation," said Dr. Hamilton, a licensed family therapist in Palm Beach Gardens. “What if a mom calls and says he’s suicidal because of his attractions, do we tell her that the county says we're not allowed to work with him if his goal is to change?"

Dr. Hamilton added during public comments, "I could go on and on about the ethical dilemmas this could cause and harm it would cause to children and teenagers, the ones that are suicidal and depressed."

A lawsuit is underway right now with the city of Tampa, that recently passed a similar ordinance this year. That prompted the Palm Beach County attorney, Denise Marie Nieman, to issue a recommendation to postpone the vote so that the commission could monitor the ongoing legal battle in Tampa.

Click here to view documents in the Tampa lawsuit.

"I don’t see why we need to rush if there’s actual litigation occurring," said commissioner Hal Valeche.

During public comments, Valeche tried asking county staff if there were any proof of conversion therapy complaints or if there was a way to track such complaints. The county says that there are no public records available on the state level regarding complaints of conversion therapy. There have been two complaints of children regarding this practice on a local level but staff could not provide further details.

However, the Human Rights Council of Palm Beach County told commissioners during the meeting that both of those complaints involved children in Valeche’s district. 

"There’s nothing we can do about that, unless you act today. The parents are the one who are causing harm by sending them to therapy. There is no recourse unless you ban it," said Hoch.

Valeche clarified existing state law and added that "there is still a prohibition against a psychologist abusing his or her profession to do harm to a patient and there is recourse in those instances."

Commissioner Steve Abrams started a substitute motion to postpone the vote, which was seconded by Commissioner Valeche.

"We should listen to the attorney’s caution," Abrams said during the meeting. "I’m mindful of the county attorney’s admonition...I believe we should wait until the Tampa case is resolved."

That vote failed 5-2.

Commission mayor Melissa Mckinlay said she believed the vote needed to be made sooner rather than later, stating, "I understand you’re passionate about your feelings and religious beliefs. For me, it’s one agenda. Love people for the way they are. Telling a child there is something inherently wrong with them is the only issue I see today."

The county then ultimately moved forward to vote on the conversion therapy ban, approving the ordinance in a 5-2 vote.

"This is something that we've been working on for 18 months," said Hoch. "They have continued to take steps to protect LGBTQ people and especially today, children."

The county said it will be up to code enforcement to enforce this new measure, based on individual complaints.

While Hoch said he believes there will no lawsuits out of this decision, therapists who spoke out during Tuesday's meeting said they are expecting otherwise.

"Attorneys here recommended that the commissioners put it on hold to see what the outcome of the lawsuit is in Tampa. And the commissioners did not heed that warning -- so they have put the county at risk for a lawsuit," said Dr. Hamilton.

Dr. Hamilton added that the county is crossing into unchartered territory, especially when it comes to enforcing the ban on licensed therapists.

"County commissioners have no jurisdiction over licensed therapists in the state of Florida. We answer to the state and we have laws and rules that are set forth by the state," she said. "There's no such thing as conversion therapy. It's simply talk therapy. Every citizen should be greatly alarmed that county commissioners can take away freedom of speech. It's truly shocking. And county commissioners are actually saying what clients are allowed to have as their goal in therapy. Clients are not allowed to seek therapy as of today."

Miami-Dade County actually rejected a similar proposal on banning conversion therapy in October.

However, several cities in Palm Beach County have already adopted conversion therapy bans, including West Palm Beach, Lake Worth, Boynton Beach, Delray Beach and Boca Raton.