Tampa’s ban on ‘conversion therapy’ has its day in court

The city’s 2017 law banning techniques deemed ineffective and harmful is being challenged by a Christian legal advocacy group.
The American flag hangs at half mast outside the Sam M. Gibbons United States Courthouse in downtown Tampa. It is home to the Middle District of Florida.
The American flag hangs at half mast outside the Sam M. Gibbons United States Courthouse in downtown Tampa. It is home to the Middle District of Florida. [ WILLIE J. ALLEN JR. | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Sept. 24, 2019|Updated Sept. 26, 2019

TAMPA — The city spent four hours in federal court on Tuesday defending its 2017 law banning so-called conversion therapy from a legal challenge mounted by a Christian evangelical legal advocacy group.

U.S. District Judge William Jung said he’ll issue a ruling by Oct. 4 on whether Tampa’s ban is legal.

Attorneys for the city argued that the law is the only way for city officials to protect young people from the practice, typically used on children who come out as gay or who identify as a gender different from the one assigned to them at birth.

Conversion therapy has been promoted by some religious groups as a way to a way to change someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity. It has been deemed ineffective among mental health experts and broadly derided as potentially harmful.

RELATED STORY: Lawsuit attempts to end conversion therapy ban in Tampa

The ban is being challenged by the Liberty Counsel, which sued Tampa on behalf of two licensed therapists, one of whom was later dismissed from the case as he did not practice in Florida.

The judge questioned attorney Robert Williams, who is representing the city, and asked why state boards that oversee mental health professional licenses would not be a better venue for assessing the work of therapists.

“This is a difficult, intimate, emotionally wracked private mystery of human existence here,” Jung said. “How will that be adjudicated in Tampa?”

Williams said there are many laws that govern professionals in a range of fields. Bans on conversion therapy have also been enacted in Miami Beach and Boca Raton.

“The City Council decided there was no other means that would protect the children of Tampa,” he said.

Liberty Counsel won a partial victory in February when U.S. Magistrate Judge Amanda Arnold Sansone issued a limited injunction against the ordinance while also upholding its ban on the use of electric shock therapy. That ruling hinged on the argument that verbal counseling by mental health professionals is protected by the First Amendment.

But at Tuesday’s hearing, Liberty’s attorney Roger Gannam conceded that the city had the right to protect children from harmful therapy even if it was administered verbally.

Instead, he argued the ban was overly broad and vague. He cited the judge’s question about a 16-year-old child who transitioned to another gender but later decided they wanted to revert. In such a case, he said, mental health professionals may run afoul of the new law.

“That same 16-year-old cannot get assistance in embracing his biological sex if that’s the way he wants to go,” Gannam said.

To bolster that argument, he pointed to depositions where both city code enforcement manager Sal Ruggiero and assistant city attorney Jerrod Simpson said such a scenario could be a violation of Tampa’s new law.

However, de-transitioning is considered a rare phenomenon. Williams said such scenarios are hypothetical cases, and that each case would be investigated thoroughly by the city attorney’s office to see if it violates the ordinance. Therapists would still be free to provide support and guidance to children as necessary, he said. The ban is aimed at cases where therapists have a predetermined goal of converting children into being heterosexual or to the gender identity assigned to them at birth.

Under Tampa’s ban, therapists and counselors who offer the therapy to minors face a $1,000 fine for a first offense and a $5,000 penalty for subsequent violations.

The ordinance defined conversion therapy as any counseling, practice or treatment aimed at changing someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity. That includes efforts to change behaviors or expressions, or to eliminate or reduce sexual or romantic attractions.

It does not include counseling for someone undergoing a gender transition or counseling that provides acceptance, support or understanding.

RELATED STORY: Judge orders ‘conversion therapy’ to continue in Tampa while city defends ordinance banning it

The Southern Poverty Law Center calls Liberty Counsel an advocate for “anti-LGBT discrimination under the guise of religious liberty.” The Orlando legal group suffered a legal defeat in a similar case in Maryland earlier this week when a federal judge dismissed its lawsuit against the state’s ban on conversion therapy.

Tampa Mayor Jane Castor, the city’s first openly gay mayor, is opposed to any type of conversion therapy.

She said Tuesday that if the court rules against the city: “We’ll just look at another avenue to address it.”

Staff writer Charlie Frago contributed to this report.