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Wisconsin Legislature moves to protect conversion therapy

March 16, 2021 GMT

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The Wisconsin Legislature moved Tuesday to kill limits on PFAS pollution and to allow therapists, counselors and social workers to continue to try to change gay and transgender people’s sexual orientation.

The Senate and Assembly both took up a bill blocking a state Department of Safety and Professional Standards rule that would have prohibited so-called conversion therapy. Both chambers placed the bill in committee, avoiding a veto from Democratic Gov. Tony Evers but effectively blocking the rule for the rest of the Legislature’s two-year session.

LGBTQ advocates maintain the therapy is confusing and harmful, especially to children struggling with their sexuality. A 1993 report from the American Academy of Pediatrics concluded that therapy aimed at changing sexual orientation can provoke guilt and anxiety with little chance of success. At least 20 states have adopted laws or regulations banning such therapy on minors, according to Human Rights Campaign. Wisconsin is not one of them.

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The Marriage and Family Therapy, Professional Counseling, and Social Work Examining Board within the DSPS developed an administrative rule last year updating conduct standards for marriage and family therapists, counselors and social workers. A provision in the rule would prohibit conversion therapy; that sparked an objection from the Legislature’s rules committee in June.

The rules committee introduced a bill in January to block the rule from taking effect. The Senate voted 20-12 to place it in committee. All of the chamber’s Democrats voted against the move.

Sen. Tim Carpenter, an openly gay Democrat from Milwaukee, railed against the bill, saying it will allow therapists to torture gay and transgender youth. He likened the therapy to burning witches.

“It doesn’t work. It’s a sham. It’s a political talking point to make some people feel good, like Rush Limbaugh,” Carpenter said, referring to the late conservative radio host. “How long do we have to wait to say conversion therapy is wrong?”

Mike Mikalsen, an aide to Sen. Steve Nass, co-chairman of the rules committee, told The Associated Press on Monday that the bill isn’t about the merits of conversion therapy. He said the DSPS therapy board lacked the authority to ban conversion therapy because the Legislature hasn’t prohibited it in statute.

“(The committee) was not dealing with the pluses and minuses of conversion therapy,” Mikalsen said. “The issue is until the Legislature adds that as a prohibited practice (in statute), someone should not lose their license for doing that.”

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The Assembly approved placing the bill in committee with no debate.

Senate Republicans also placed in committee a bill blocking a Department of Natural Resources rule designed to fight pollution from PFAS, so-called “forever” chemicals that have entered the environment through products such as Teflon and firefighting foam. Research suggests PFAS can cause health problems.

That move again avoids an Evers veto but effectively blocks the rule for the remainder of the session.

The rule implemented a bill that the governor signed last year that banned the use of firefighting foam except in emergencies and during testing at facilities with DNR-approved containment and disposal protocols. Under the rule, foam-testing facilities must treat foam with incineration, carbon filtration or a custom system approved by the DNR. Such facilities can’t discharge water with detectable PFAS levels.

Business groups complained the DNR lacks the authority to limit PFAS in wastewater and its standards weren’t based on science. The department countered that the standards are needed to gauge if treatment is effective.

The bill prohibits the DNR from drafting any rules that apply to materials contaminated with PFAS, defines treatment as removal or destruction of a contaminant or establishes numerical treatment standards for PFAS stemming from firefighting foam.

Sen. Kelda Roys, a Madison Democrat, accused Republicans of undermining the public’s faith in the Legislature.

“What good is the law if it can’t be enforced? she said. ”This is wrong. If we’ve decided we don’t care about poisoned water anymore, this body should vote to repeal the law.”

The Senate ultimately voted 18-14 to move the bill to committee. Robert Cowles and Eric Wimberger, both Republicans, joined Democrats in voting against it.

The Assembly placed the bill in committee with no debate.

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Follow Todd Richmond on Twitter at https://twitter.com/trichmond1