City leaders defer vote on proposed ban of conversion therapy for LGBTQ minors; religious counseling topic of debate

photo by: City of Lawrence

Commissioner Jennifer Ananda, left, discusses a proposed ordinance to prohibit the practice of conversion therapy for minors with Assistant City Attorney Maria Garcia.

After disagreement regarding how to handle counseling provided by members of religious organizations, city leaders have deferred their vote on an ordinance that would ban so-called conversion therapy that aims to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

As part of its meeting Tuesday, the Lawrence City Commission voted 4-1, with Commissioner Jennifer Ananda opposed, to defer a vote on ordinance 9828, which would prohibit the practice of conversion therapy for minors. At issue was whether the ordinance should specifically single out clergy as being an exception to the ordinance. City legal staff said the exception had been included to avoid legal challenges based on the First Amendment, which protects religious freedoms.

Ananda, who has a background in both law and social work, said it wasn’t about the legal argument for her, but instead about the harm such therapy can have on LGBTQ children. Ananda specifically noted the suicide rate for LGBTQ youth who are forced to undergo the therapy.

“When we are talking about more than two times the rate of suicide for people subjected to this therapy, I am not willing to carve out an exception,” Ananda said.

However, as the ordinance is currently proposed, eliminating the specific exemption for clergy wouldn’t mean that clergy would be subject to the ban. As written, the ordinance only covers “licensed, certified, or registered medical professionals or mental health professionals,” and clergy or other religious figures often counsel without a license. Ananda said she would also argue that if clergy or anyone else is engaging in the unlicensed practice of therapeutic services, then that’s also a problem that should be addressed.

However, Mayor Brad Finkeldei, Commissioner Lisa Larsen and Commissioner Stuart Boley all were hesitant to strike the exception from the ordinance.

“I support the ordinance, but I’m very reluctant to insert the city in the relationship between someone in the clergy and a member of their congregation,” Boley said.

City Attorney Maria Garcia said 20 states and numerous municipalities, including Roeland Park in the Kansas City area, have banned the practice of conversion therapy. Garcia noted that various professional organizations, including the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, have said conversion therapy is unfounded and detrimental to those who undergo it. In response to questions from the commission, Garcia said many ordinances reviewed by the city covered only licensed or certified providers, and the city included the exception for clergy to avoid legal risk.

In an email to the Journal-World, Garcia said the city attorney’s office was not aware of counselors or practices providing conversion therapy in Lawrence at this time. However, while the commission received several comments in support of the proposed ordinance, it also received correspondence from two religious figures who were against it. That included someone who said it could stop religious schools from providing counseling to students on the topic, and a letter from Barry Foster, who is the senior pastor at First Christian Church in downtown Lawrence.

Foster characterized the proposal as “an outrageous overstep in the pursuit of the enshrining of a political platform.” He said the proposal was overly broad and prohibited approaches that could be helpful for minors “confused” about their sexuality and sense of self.

“While it is true that there are a number of questionable practices and approaches that may be grouped under the broad umbrella of ‘conversion therapy,’ there are also highly reputable, person-centered approaches that help both minors and adults who struggle with various issues surrounding gender identity to find solutions that affirm their wholeness as human beings without the need to deny their biological gender,” Foster wrote.

Foster also accused the proposed ban of being hypocritical since it does not prohibit forms of counseling or medical procedures that he said could cause “devastating life-altering damage to minors, such as the use of puberty blockers, chemical castration, hormonal infusions, and invasive gender-destroying surgeries.”

At the advice of legal staff, the commission generally agreed, with the exception of Ananda, that it should further discuss the issue with legal counsel and bring the ordinance back for review at an upcoming meeting.

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