Conversion Therapy Ban Will Face Legal Challenge
By Katie Lannan
State House News Service
BOSTON -- Opponents of a law Gov. Charlie Baker signed Monday banning the use of conversion therapy on minors are planning a legal challenge, arguing the legislation violates the First Amendment.
The new law, based on legislation that passed the House and Senate overwhelmingly in March, bans health care providers in Massachusetts from engaging in efforts to change the gender identity or sexual orientation of a patient younger than 18.
Supporters of the ban describe conversion therapy as an abusive practice, while critics of the law, including the Massachusetts Family Institute, have raised concerns it could impact the ability of religious leaders and others to counsel people looking for help.
“This law is an extraordinarily invasive assault on the rights of parents to raise their children and a violation of the First Amendment right to free speech for the counselors whose help they seek,” Massachusetts Family Institute President Andrew Beckwith said in a statement. “MFI will pursue legal action against the Counseling Ban to defend those constitutional rights in our commonwealth.”
When the Senate passed its version of the bill on March 28, Minority Leader Bruce Tarr foreshadowed a possible legal challenge, and Sen. Joan Lovely, who chairs the Rules Committee that advanced the bill to the floor, voiced confidence in its constitutionality.
Tarr and four other Republicans -- Sens. Vinny deMacedo, Ryan Fattman, Donald Humason and Dean Tran -- voted “present” on the Senate bill instead of voting for or against it. The sixth Senate Republican, Patrick O’Connor of Weymouth, joined 33 Democrats in voting for the bill. No senators voted in opposition.
DeMacedo, of Plymouth, said the five GOP senators wanted to make clear they oppose the practice of conversion therapy but were worried the legislation “provides too much room for interpretation in an area that requires caution and precision.”
Tarr unsuccessfully pitched the Senate on seeking an opinion from the Supreme Judicial Court as to whether the bill violates the United States or Massachusetts Constitutions regarding the professional speech of health care providers, parental rights, privacy and patient confidentiality.
Tarr described those areas as challenges that “might be reasonably anticipated to be raised” and said he was seeking clarity from the state’s highest court out of concern that the bill’s aim might be jeopardized because of how it was written.
“What’s at risk if we stumble is too great,” the Gloucester Republican said.
Lovely, a Salem Democrat, said she was “confident that the pending bill is constitutional.” She said the bill “relies on well-established authority of the state to regulate professional conduct,” and that it seeks to prohibit specific actions by health providers, rather than regulate their speech.
Courts have recognized that states have a right to intervene against potential harm to a child, Lovely said.
Massachusetts on Monday became the 16th state to institute a conversion therapy ban.
The Trevor Project, a suicide prevention and crisis organization for LGBTQ youth, praised lawmakers and Baker for “protecting youth in the Bay State from the dangerous and discredited practice of conversion therapy.”
“Not only will their actions reduce harm to queer youth in the Bay state, but the clear, bipartisan support for this legislation sends a powerful message to lawmakers around the country that this abusive practice must end,” said Sam Brinton, the organization’s head of advocacy and government affairs.