Palm Beach County takes step to ban conversion therapy for gay minors

The Palm Beach County Commission moved forward with a proposed ordinance Tuesday that would ban conversion therapy for minors, a controversial practice aimed at changing an individual’s sexual orientation.

Several municipalities in the county — Boca Raton, West Palm Beach, Lake Worth, Boynton Beach, Delray Beach and Wellington — have already passed such an ordinance.

If commissioners vote in favor of the ordinance during a public hearing on Dec. 19, Palm Beach County would be the first county in the state to pass a ban on conversion therapy.

» RELATED: More Florida government news

Supporters of the proposed ordinance believe it would protect minors from a practice some see as a harmful attempt to convince young people that being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender is wrong or bad.

Opponents say the proposed ordinance would take the county beyond its authority, limit the free speech of therapists and limit the options of parents seeking to help their children with unwanted same-sex attraction and confusion.

Most of those who spoke about the proposal on Tuesday decried it as an infringement on the free-speech rights of therapists, a usurpation of parental authority, an invitation to legal challenge and an all-around bad idea.

“This ordinance is unlawful,” said Julie Hamilton, a marriage and family counselor in Palm Beach Gardens. “If you pass this ordinance, you are grossly overstepping your bounds. Although other cities passed this, they are all in error.”

Robert Otto, a therapist in Boca Raton, said: “What takes place in a counseling office is freedom of speech.”

Otto reiterated Hamilton’s assertion that commissioners should defer to licensing entities.

“Your responsibility is to stay within the box that you’ve been given and vote no on this issue,” he said.

Otto’s wife, Shannon Otto, added her own opposition, drawing a question from County Mayor Melissa McKinlay.

“I am asking you if you believe homosexual behavior is something that needs to be corrected,” McKinlay told Otto. “Yes, or no?”

“Yes, I do,” Shannon Otto said.

The county’s proposed ordinance defines conversion therapy as “any counseling, practices or treatments that seek to change an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity, including but not limited to efforts to change behavior, gender identity, or gender expressions or to eliminate or reduce sexual or romantic attractions or feelings toward individuals of the same gender or sex.”

According to the proposed ordinance, it “is an exercise of the county’s police power for the benefit of the public health, safety and welfare.”

Those found to be in violation of the ordinance face fines of $250 for a first offense and $500 for all repeat offenses.

Rand Hoch, who has pushed for the ordinance as president of the Palm Beach County Human Rights Council, said his group’s research turned up about a half dozen therapists offering conversion therapy in the county.

However, after Tuesday’s meeting, when several other therapists spoke out against the proposed ordinance, Hoch said he now believes far more than six therapists are practicing conversion therapy in the county.

“Conversion therapy is fraudulent,” Hoch said. “There is no evidence that it works.”

Commissioner Hal Valeche said he is no fan of conversion therapy, but he expressed concern about the county adopting an ordinance that could be seen as a curtailment of free speech.

“I think we are on dangerous ground here,” he said. “To me, this is about speech. What we’re doing is banning or criminalizing speech we find distasteful. This is smacking of fascism to me.”

Most of Valeche’s colleagues disagreed with him, arguing that conversion therapy adds to the confusion, despair and self-hatred of gay and lesbian young people.

“We’re here to help protect the health, safety and welfare of our residents,” Commissioner Mack Bernard said. “This is an opportunity to protect minors.”

Tuesday’s vote wasn’t on the merits of the ordinance. It was a vote on whether a public hearing should be held on it.

Valeche was the only commissioner to vote against holding that public hearing. Commissioner Steven Abrams said he will wait to see what changes, if any, are made to the ordinance before casting a final vote on it.

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