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SC lawmaker asks AG to block Columbia conversion therapy ban

May 17, 2021 GMT

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — A lawmaker in South Carolina has asked the state’s attorney general to block a proposed city ordinance in Columbia that aims to prohibit professional therapists from attempting to change the sexual orientation of minors.

Republican state Sen. Josh Kimbrell wrote in a May 13 letter to Attorney General Alan Wilson that he believes the proposal “presents a real danger to religious liberty in our capital city.” If the Columbia City Council passes the ban, Kimbrell said, Wilson should take legal action to overturn it.

The ordinance would prevent licensed therapists and counselors from providing what’s known as conversion therapy to individuals under the age of 18 within city limits, news outlets reported. Violations would constitute a civil penalty and carry a $500 fine.

Council members are expected to receive legal advice on the proposal during an executive session Tuesday and could take a final vote on it after. The ban unanimously passed the city council on a first vote May 4. Columbia’s ordinance would be the first of its kind in South Carolina, according to The Post and Courier.

“I think this is a violation of the concept of the First Amendment,” Kimbrell told The State. “You can’t tell somebody, as a private practitioner, what they can and cannot say to a client, particularly a child who is under the direction of that child’s parents. What the city of Columbia is proposing is unconstitutional on its face.”

Robert Kittle, a spokesperson for Wilson, told The Post and Courier that the attorney general’s office is reviewing Kimbrell’s request.

Twenty states and Washington, D.C., have prohibited conversion therapy for minors to date, according to news outlets. Dozens of cities and counties across the U.S. have also opposed it. The second-largest county in Kentucky banned it earlier this month.

In 2019, a federal judge tossed a lawsuit that challenged Maryland’s ban on conversion therapy for minors. But a federal appeals court in November blocked the enforcement of local bans in Florida, siding with two therapists who said their free speech rights were violated.

Kimbrell introduced a bill before the General Assembly adjourned that he said would override the Columbia ordinance. It can’t be considered until the 2022 session starts in January, however. The state senator said he hopes the courts will invalidate the rule if it passes.

The legislation would shield psychologists and counselors from punishment for objecting to a medical practice based on ethical or religious beliefs by adding them to the state’s “right of conscience” laws.

Council member Tameika Isaac Devine, a candidate for Columbia mayor this year who proposed the ordinance, said she’s confident the rule is constitutional. She told The State that council members have received messages supporting and opposing the ban. Much of the opposition has come from outside the city, she told the newspaper.

“It is sad that the legislature has spent the entire session trying to enact laws that actually hurt South Carolinians instead of paying attention to things that really make a difference in the lives of the people we serve,” Devine said.