Counselor sues over Colorado’s ban on conversion therapy for minors

A licensed professional counselor in Colorado Springs is challenging the state’s ban on conversion therapy for children on the grounds that the 2019 law violates her First Amendment rights.

Kaley Chiles claimed in a federal lawsuit filed Monday that the state’s law prohibiting mental health professionals from trying to change a minor’s sexual orientation violates her rights to free speech and her clients’ rights to religious freedom.

“The law denies Plaintiff’s minor clients their right to self-determination, their right to prioritize their religious and moral values, and their right to receive effective counseling consistent with their freely chosen values,” reads the lawsuit, filed by attorney Barry Arrington.

He did not return a request for comment Wednesday. The lawsuit names as defendants Patty Salazar, who serves as executive director of the Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies, or DORA, as well as members of the State Board of Licensed Professional Counselor Examiners and State Board of Addiction Counselor Examiners.

Katie O’Donnell, a spokeswoman for DORA, declined to comment Wednesday.

Chiles’ challenge to the ban comes as a similar challenge was struck down this week by the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which on Tuesday unanimously upheld Washington state’s ban on conversion therapy for minors.

A similar ban on conversion therapy has been upheld in California, and a similar First Amendment lawsuit in Maryland challenging a ban there was thrown out in 2019. A federal appeals court in Atlanta took the opposite stance and in 2020 blocked the enforcement of conversion therapy bans put in some localities in Florida.

Conversion therapy is a widely discredited practice that seeks to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Lawmakers in 2019 prohibited licensed state mental health professionals from offering or advertising such services, which have been found to be harmful to people who undergo the practice.

“Our position is there is significant evidence indicating that these practices are harmful to people,” said Clinton Anderson, deputy chief of psychology in public interest at the American Psychological Association. “There is no reason why being gay or lesbian or being transgender requires being changed.”

Chiles argued in the lawsuit that Colorado’s ban prevents her from effectively treating her minor clients who feel a conflict between their religious beliefs and their same-sex attractions.

But Anderson rejected that idea, saying that a ban on conversion therapy doesn’t prevent effective counseling for someone struggling to balance their religious convictions with their sexual orientation.

“From our perspective, a therapist should be coming to a client’s reason for distress with a neutral stance with regard to how that client resolves that distress,” he said. “…(A client) may decide, having worked through things, that the priority for them is their religion over their sexuality. If that is what they decide, then that’s fine; then they figure out how to make that work. But we don’t believe therapists should be siding with that and saying, ‘Yes, your religion is more important than your sexuality so I’m going to help you repress or reject your sexuality’… It worsens self-esteem, self-hatred and shame.”

Gillian Ford, a spokeswoman for One Colorado, an LGBTQ advocacy organization that pushed for the ban on childhood conversion therapy, said the organization sees no freedom of speech issues with the law banning what she called “discredited pseudoscience.”

“The statewide ban really provides clarity and safety and regulation for clinical treatments that are performed, in this case, by therapists with a state license,” she said, adding the organization is opposed to any attempts to overturn the ban.

“We want to do everything we can to protect especially our youth who are under attack in numerous ways,” she said, “and this is a particularly egregious way in which LGBTQ+ young people can be unequivocally harmed.”

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