Mormon leaders in Utah last week announced their support for a ban on so-called conversion therapy for minors who identify as LGBT. The proposed state regulation would prohibit licensed therapists from providing counseling that might result in minors renouncing their homosexuality or transgender identity.
The Utah Legislature considered a bill in February banning conversion therapy, but it failed in committee. Over the summer, Gov. Gary Herbert, a Republican and a Mormon, revived the issue, proposing it as a state regulation instead of a law. Some Latter-day Saints groups pushed back on the proposed rule, including LDS Family Services, the counseling arm of the Mormon religion made up of more than 250 licensed professional counselors serving more than 28,000 clients a year.
In October, the agency issued a letter arguing the rule “would imperil entirely legitimate and helpful therapies to the detriment of minor clients,” adding, “Preventing harmful conversion therapy is important, but it does not justify rigid, overbroad, or ambiguous regulations that will have the effect of denying desperately needed therapies and guidance to gender-dysphoric children and their parents.”
Last week, Herbert announced that Mormon leaders supported a new rule that included similar language. It explicitly grants exceptions for clergy members or religious counselors acting in a religious capacity as well as parents and grandparents who are licensed therapists but does not address many of the larger concerns expressed by LDS Family Services.
The shift in the Mormon position on a conversion therapy ban is a “confusing contradiction,” said David Pruden, executive director of the Alliance for Therapeutic Choice and Scientific Integrity, a national organization of therapists, academics, and researchers advocating for the rights of individuals to obtain therapy that honors their values. He also is a member of Protect All Teens, a coalition of Utahns who oppose the rule.
Mormon doctrine defines marriage as between a man and a woman, bars homosexual activity, and teaches gender is an immutable characteristic.
Pruden called conversion therapy bans a “bait and switch.” Advocates point to horror stories of children with same-sex attraction subjected to discredited aversion therapy techniques that Pruden claims no ethical therapists are doing today. Then they argue a conversion therapy ban will solve the problem.
But conversion therapy bans are a blunt instrument. In Utah, Pruden said, the proposed regulation is so convoluted and vague that people don’t understand they are banning any therapy that could result in a person deciding to change his or her sexual orientation or gender identity. He advocated for a law with a sharper point.
“It’s been a mistake through the years to turn this into a ‘their bill or no bill’ deal,” Purden said, noting that a better measure would ban abusive and discredited practices, not limit the ability of ethical therapists to do their job.
The state likely will publish the proposed rule on Dec. 15 and then go through a 30-day public comment period. That means it could take effect as soon as mid-January, a result that proponents, like LGBT activist group Equality Utah, are declaring as a given.
But it’s not yet a done deal.
A stamp of approval from Mormon leaders is significant—the majority of state lawmakers and nearly two-thirds of the state’s 3.1 million residents are Latter-day Saints—but it might not be enough to move the rule across the finish line. It wasn’t enough when the state legislature considered it earlier this year.
Pruden also said some state lawmakers believe the measure should return to the legislature for consideration when it is back in session in January, a move that would almost certainly mean it goes back to the drawing board.