A federal appeals court ruled Thursday to uphold New Jersey's law prohibiting medical professionals in the state from practicing gay conversion therapy, or efforts to turn gay people straight, on people under the age of 18.
The 3rd Circuit Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a November 2013 ruling that found the state's law, called A3371, which prohibits therapists from performing treatment attempting to change sexual orientation or gender identity on minors, as constitutional.
Two New Jersey therapists and organizations, the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH) and the American Association of Christian Counselors, challenged the ban in court, arguing it violates their right to free speech by preventing them from discussing such treatment with patients. They also argued it violated their religious beliefs.
In its 74-page opinion, the appeals court found those arguments lack merit, and agreed with the prior court ruling that the plaintiffs' arguments don't trump the state's ability to enact laws regulating professionals, including medical and mental health providers.
"Although we reject the District Court's conclusion that A3371 prohibits only 'conduct' that is wholly unprotected by the First Amendment, we uphold the statute as a regulation of professional speech that passes intermediate scrutiny," the court wrote in its opinion. "We agree with the District Court that A3371 does not violate Plaintiffs' right to free exercise of religion, as it is a neutral and generally applicable law that is rationally related to a legitimate government interest."
As noted in the court's conclusion, the panel of judges disagreed that conversion therapy should only be considered under the state's ban as "conduct" and not as protected free speech under the First Amendment. That protection, though, is "diminished" because "Plaintiffs are speaking as state-licensed professionals within the confines of a professional relationship," according to the court.
The court also cites warnings that conversion therapy efforts could be harmful to minors by leading mental health organizations such as the American Psychological Association, the American Psychiatric Association, and the Pan American Health Organization — along with with the fact that these organizations say there is no evidence conversion therapy efforts are actually effective.
"We conclude that this evidence is substantial," the court wrote in its opinion. "Legislatures are entitled to rely on the empirical judgments of independent professional organizations that possess specialized knowledge and experience concerning the professional practice under review, particularly when this community has spoken with such urgency and solidarity on the subject."
Last year, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals made a similar ruling upholding California's statewide ban on conversion therapy for minors. New Jersey and California are the only two states that currently have such laws.
Following the ruling, New Jersey statewide LGBT rights group Garden State Equality and the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) issued a joint statement celebrating the ruling. Garden State Equality intervened in the lawsuit last fall and is represented by NCLR and other attorneys.
“The court’s decision today is a major victory for the thousands of young people who will now be protected from these dangerous and horrific practices,” Andrea Bowen, executive director of Garden State Equality, in the statement. “No one should subject minors to conversion therapy — least of all state-licensed clinicians responsible for the care and well-being of their patients.”
Shannon Minter, NCLR’s Legal Director, said the court's ruling means youth in the state will continue to be protected from the "cruel and damaging" practice of conversion therapy.
"The court of appeals’ ruling makes clear that state-licensed therapists do not have a constitutional right to engage in discredited practices that offer no health benefits and put LGBT youth at risk of severe harm, including depression and suicide," Minter said. "We thank Acting Attorney General John Jay Hoffman, Deputy Attorney General Susan Marie Scott, and the entire legal team at the Office of the Attorney General for their work defending this essential law.”
An attorney for the plaintiffs seeking to overturn the state's ban on conversion therapy for minors said Friday he plans to ask the Supreme Court to hear an appeal of the case, the Associated Press reported.
The attorney, Demetrios Stratis, told the AP that due to the appeals court disagreeing with the lower court on the issue of free speech under the First Amendment, the Supreme Court is more likely to take up the case.
A voicemail was left at Stratis' office seeking additional information.