By Mark Joseph Stern
A federal appeals court blocked bans on LGBTQ “conversion therapy” for minors on Friday, finding that two Florida cities violate the First Amendment with laws that seek to protect children from the harmful and discredited practice. Both judges in the majority are Federalist Society members appointed by President Donald Trump. Their decision rejects the mountain of evidence that “conversion therapy” substantially increases young people’s risk of depression and suicide. Indeed, the majority explicitly found that the government lacks a compelling interest in protecting minors from the practice, dismissing the consensus among mainstream medical groups that “conversion therapy” is dangerous and ineffective.
Friday’s decision by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals involves nearly identical laws passed by Boca Raton and Palm Beach County. Both measures prohibit licensed counselors from attempting to change a minor’s sexual orientation or gender identity. They do not apply to adult patients or unlicensed counselors, such as faith leaders or parents. Two licensed therapists challenged the laws, alleging that they violated their free speech rights. They argued that the First Amendment protects their ability to “convert” LGBTQ children without fear of losing their license.
Two other federal appeals courts have rejected such arguments, finding no constitutional flaw in these laws. And today, “conversion therapy” bans are widespread: 20 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and at least 83 municipalities have forbidden the practice for minors. By a 2–1 vote, however, the 11th Circuit declared that Boca Raton and Palm Beach County’s bans—and, by extension, all the rest—are unconstitutional. The two judges in the majority were Lisa Branch and Barbara Lagoa. Branch, who authored the opinion, found that the bans restrict speech on the basis of content and viewpoint, triggering strict scrutiny. Thus, the laws must be “narrowly tailored to serve a compelling interest.”
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