The U.S. Supreme Court is considering hearing a challenge to Washington State’s ban on conversion therapy for LGBTQ minors.
The case, Tingley v. Ferguson, was brought by the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), an anti-LGBTQ hate group, as designated by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
The plaintiff, a licensed marriage and family counselor named Brian Tingley, has alleged that, as a Christian therapist, Washington State’s ban on conversion therapy infringes on his rights to both freedom of speech and free exercise of religion.
Tingley is being represented by ADF, a legal group which the Supreme Court recently ruled in favor of in the case 303 Creative LLC v. Elenis, which — despite a lack of standing to bring the case — provided “a green light for people to engage in what was previously understood as discrimination,” according to Katherine Franke, professor of law and director of the Center for Gender & Sexuality Law at Columbia University.
In 2021, Tingley’s argument was rejected by the federal district court for the Western District of Washington, which upheld Washington’s ban on conversion therapy. In September 2022, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court’s decision, holding that it is constitutional for states to enact laws to protect youth from the harms of conversion therapy by licensed therapists.
The American Psychological Association (APA) filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the Ninth Circuit in support of Washington State’s ban on conversion therapy, attesting that such therapy is dangerous and that minors who undergo the practice face a high risk of psychological harm.
Tingley then requested that the Ninth Circuit rehear the case before a larger panel of judges, but his request was denied. In March, he petitioned the Supreme Court to hear the case. While the court has not yet acted on the petition, legal scholars are monitoring the case closely.
“I do worry that the more conservative members of the court will be more than open to taking this kind of case, independent of the circuit split,” Franke told The New Republic, “because it’s the next step in what is the ADF’s agenda, which is to have free speech and religious liberty rights basically become a mechanism by which to supersede any reasonable government regulation that is enacted in the public’s interest.”
Conversion therapy is a discredited and dangerous set of practices which attempt to forcibly change the sexual orientation or gender identity of LGBTQ people. Conversion therapy ranges from talk therapy to shock and aversion treatments, and has been condemned by more than a dozen mental health, medical, and education organizations as harmful and ineffective. The United Nations (UN) has demanded that the practice be banned, saying that conversion therapy amounts to torture.
“Practices of conversion therapy are not only ineffective, but they can also be extremely harmful. They often lead to pain and suffering that will last far beyond their occurrence, leaving indelible scars on a person’s body and mind,” said Victor Madrigal-Borloz, UN expert on sexual orientation and gender identity. “The combined effects of feeling powerless and extreme humiliation generate profound feelings of shame, guilt, self-disgust and worthlessness, which can result in a damaged self-concept and enduring personality changes.”
Studies have shown that conversion therapy can cause LGBTQ youth to experience shame, anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation. In a 2021 survey conducted by the Trevor Project on LGBTQ mental health, LGBTQ youth who were subjected to conversion therapy reported atttempting suicide in the past year at more than twice the rate of their peers who were not subjected to such therapy.
Because of the dangers conversion therapy poses to LGBTQ youth, 22 states and Washington, D.C. have banned the practice for minors, while five additional states have partial bans of conversion therapy on the books, according to the Movement Advancement Project.
In June 2019, the Williams Institute estimated that nearly 16,000 LGBTQ youth would undergo conversion therapy from a licensed professional before they reach the age of 18 in the 32 states that did not ban the practice at the time. While the number of LGBTQ youth who are impacted by this practice has likely decreased as more states have adopted conversion therapy bans, Tingley’s challenge to Washington State’s ban has the potential to undo this progress.
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