California's landmark law banning the use of so-called "gay conversion therapy" on minors was upheld Thursdayby a federal appeals court panel that found the ban does not violate the free speech rights of therapists.
The ban, the product of Senate Bill 1172 by Sen. Ted Lieu, D-Torrance, passed in 2012 and was designed to prevent state licensed mental health providers from using "sexual orientation change efforts" - known as SOCE - on patients younger than 18.
"I'm very happy," Lieu said in a telephone interview today. "It means that the quackery of gay conversion therapy will not be able to rear its head in California (for minors)."
The law was the first of its kind in the nation and sparked two lawsuits in federal court in Sacramento, where two judges came to opposite opinions last year on whether it violates the First Amendment guarantee to free speech.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals took up the issue and stayed implementation of the law until Thursday, when a three-judge panel issued a 36-page opinion finding that the law does not violate free speech guarantees.
"Instead, SB 1172 does just one thing: it requires licensed mental health providers in California who wish to engage in 'practices ... that seek to change a (minor's) sexual orientation' either to wait until the minor turns 18 or be subject to professional discipline," the judges wrote.
"Thus, SB 1172 regulates the provision of medical treatment, but leaves mental health providers free to discuss or recommend treatment and to express their views on any topic."
Proponents and practitioners of the therapy had sued to block the law, arguing that it curtails their ability to practice their profession and contending that the therapy is not harmful.
The stay barring the law from taking effect could be lifted within a week, although one conservative legal group vowed to appeal to the full 9th Circuit or the U.S. Supreme Court.
Liberty Counsel, a non-profit conservative legal group that filed one of the suits in Sacramento, said in a statement that minors it represents "do not want to act on same-sex attractions."
"This is a decision that will harm children," Matthew D. Staver, who founded Liberty Counsel and argued the case before the 9th Circuit, said in a phone interview.
"There are some children who have been in therapy for a year or more and have benefited from it. Their self-esteem has improved and their relationships with family and friends have been repaired. We will do everything we can to continue to support and protect these young people."
The issue promises to remain a focus in American politics for conservative groups.
A similar bill was signed into law last week by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, considered a leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.
The National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality, a Utah-based group that was a plaintiff against Lieu's bill, has already said it will work to overturn the New Jersey law.
Opponents of the therapy say "gay conversion therapy" - especially when used on minors - is dangerous and has led to suicides.
Mental health groups have roundly denounced the therapy and supported Lieu's bill, which stated the use of such treatment on minors "shall be considered unprofessional conduct and shall subject the provider to discipline by the provider's licensing entity."
Lieu called the therapy "psychological child abuse," and the court opinion noted that such practices began "when the medical and psychological community considered homosexuality an illness."
"In the past, aversive treatments included inducing nausea, vomiting or paralysis; providing electric shocks, or having an individual snap an elastic band around the wrist when aroused by same-sex erotic images or thoughts," the opinion states. "Even more drastic methods, such as castration, have been used."
Today, the panel noted, such treatment can employ hypnosis or "assertiveness and affection training with physical and social reinforcement to increase other-sex sexual behaviors."
The appeals panel found that the law does not impact a licensed professional's free speech rights, noting that, "for example, a doctor who publicly advocates a treatment that the medical establishment considers outside the mainstream, or even dangerous, is entitled to robust protection under the First Amendment ... ."
But the panel added that "doctors are routinely held liable for giving negligent medical advice to their patients, without serious suggestion that the First Amendment protects their right to give advice that is not consistent with the accepted standard of care."
The court opinion said the law does nothing to limit practitioners of such therapy from advocating for its use.
"It bans a form of medical treatment for minors; it does nothing to prevent licensed therapists from discussing the pros and cons of SOCE with their patients," the opinion states.
Call The Bee's Sam Stanton, (916) 321-1091.