To Protect LGBT Minors in East Lansing, Stephens Pursues Conversion Therapy Ban

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Monday, July 29, 2019, 7:47 am
Andrew Graham

Above: Aaron Stephens at City Council

Taking his cue from another Michigan city and motivated by the stalling of similar measures in the Michigan state legislature, City Council member Aaron Stephens has proposed an ordinance to ban the practice of conversion therapy on minors in East Lansing’s city limits.

In response to questions from ELi, Stephens says he is not overly concerned that the measure could lead to another expensive lawsuit for the City, in part because he does not see evidence the practice is happening in East Lansing.

The ban covers practices aimed at both sexual orientation and gender identity

The term “conversion therapy” historically has referred to the discredited psychological practice of trying to change a person’s sexual orientation from gay to straight. The American Psychiatric Association and other mainstream medical groups have said that, rather than helping patients, sexual orientation conversion therapy can be harmful, particularly if practiced on minors.

The draft ordinance introduced by Stephens seeks to ban not only “attempts to change a person’s sexual orientation” but also any attempts to change a person’s gender identity, “including efforts to change behaviors or gender expressions.”

The ban would allow for “counseling that provides support and assistance to a person undergoing gender transition, or counseling that provides acceptance, support, and understanding of a person or facilitates a person’s coping, social support, and development, including sexual orientation neutral interventions to prevent or address unlawful conduct or unsafe sexual practices, as long as such counseling does not seek to change sexual orientation or gender identity.”

“I thought it was prudent,” Stephens said of introducing the measure.

Similar attempt stalled at the state, but passed in Huntington Woods

Two concurrent state bills, introduced to the Michigan House of Representatives and Senate by two democratic representatives — Senator Mallory McMorrow and Representative Yousef Rabhi, respectively — would ban the practice of conversion therapy on minors statewide. But both items, Senate Bill 284 and House Bill 4515, have been stalled in committee since their introduction in April.

In June, the City Commission of Huntington Woods, Michigan, passed Ordinance No. 617, banning conversion therapy. That Detroit suburb’s law became the blueprint for the ordinance Stephens introduced at the July 16 meeting of East Lansing’s City Council.

East Lansing’s City Council immediately sent the proposed ordinance to the City’s Human Relations Commission for further feedback. That Commission is charged with working to protect civil rights in East Lansing.

Proposed law suggests a $500 fine for violation

Proposed city ordinance No. 1467’s stated purpose is “to protect the health and well-being of LGBTQ minors from being exposed to the serious harm caused by conversion therapy and to provide a method of enforcement.”

Below: City Attorney Tom Yeadon, who helped draft an ordinance for East Lansing at Stephens' request.

The ordinance goes into further detail, citing mainstream medical societies — including the American Psychological Association, the American Psychiatric Association, and the American Academy of Pediatrics — that say conversion therapy is not only ineffective, but actively harmful.

“Research studies and other available evidence show that conversion therapy,” the ordinance reads, “or other treatment practices that attempt to change a young person’s sexual orientation or gender identity pose a significant risk of serious emotional and physical harm to youth who undergo them, such as anxiety, depression, hopelessness, social withdrawal, illegal drug use, and suicide.”

If the law passes, the practice of conversion therapy in East Lansing would be a civil infraction punishable a $500 fine. The draft law specifically stipulates that conversion therapy is illegal, whether the provider is compensated or not.

The ordinance defines provider as “any licensed medical or mental health professional, including, but not limited to, licensed mental health counselors, mental health counselor associates, marriage and family therapists, marriage and family therapist associates, social workers, social worker associates, and any physicians, psychologists, psychotherapists, certified chemical dependency professionals, certified chemical dependency professional trainees, counselors, certified counselors, and certified advisers.”

Law would put the onus of initial investigation on City staff and Human Relations Commission

The job of enforcing the law would fall primarily on the volunteer Human Relations Commission (HRC). The draft law seeks to have the HRC “receive, investigate, and make determinations on complaints of violations in this article.”

Complaints submitted are to be checked first for completeness by the City staff liaison to the HRC. Right now, that person is Shelli Neumann, Director of Human Resources for the City.

Below: Shelli Neumann, photo courtesy City of East Lansing

A person making a complaint must declare the information is “accurate and truthful . . . under penalty of perjury.”

All complaints, which are to include the name and address of “the involved minor,” are to be kept confidential by those reviewing them.

The HRC is expected to “perform all tasks and responsibilities” pertinent to the ordinance, including receiving and reviewing these complaints, then acting on them when applicable by sending an advisory letter and possibly referring the matter to the City Attorney for “the issuance of a municipal civil infraction.”

Potential legal issues for the City of East Lansing if this ordinance is challenged?

Under Michigan’s public health code, only the State’s Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (LARA) has the purview to regulate licensed care or treatment, because LARA controls the licensing process for health professionals.

But, if passed, Ordinance 1467 carries the potential for the City to charge a provider with a civil infraction, not an action on licensure. Because of the absence of a statewide ban or any specific language in the public health code about conversion therapy, this ordinance doesn’t appear on the surface to come into direct conflict with any specific state law.

Still, a provider might challenge a fine on the grounds that the City does not have the power to make and enforce this law.

When asked by ELi to help clarify the issue, LARA’s public affairs office responded, “It is not appropriate for LARA to weigh in on a pending local ordinance.” The response continued, “Furthermore, LARA would not be responsible for enforcing such an ordinance; we only have authority to enforce what is covered under statute and administrative rules, not local ordinances.”

There’s also the potential for a law like this to invoke challenges on First Amendment grounds, including on the basis of restriction of religious freedom.

The City of East Lansing is currently being sued by Country Mill, a Charlotte-based apple orchard, over the attempted banning of Country Mill’s business from East Lansing’s public farmers’ market over Country Mill’s refusal to host same-sex weddings at their Charlotte farm. That lawsuit has cost East Lansing taxpayers over $180,000 to date, and the court has allowed Country Mill to return to the market as the case goes through the courts.

The plaintiffs in that case are being represented by the religious freedom legal defense group, Alliance Defending Freedom, which has used the case against East Lansing to elicit political and financial support from conservative donors nationwide.

At the June 4 meeting of City Council, Mayor Mark Meadows (above) again supported the cost involved in defending the City’s position in this suit, saying he believes that it is an extraordinarily important issue that will ultimately decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

On the issue of the drafted conversion therapy law, Aaron Stephens tells ELi, “I don’t imagine we’ll have any legal backlash,” although he added that he “will never definitively say [the City] won’t get sued.”

Stephens says he’s aware of “no credible evidence” of conversion therapy occurring in East Lansing, which makes him think a lawsuit is unlikely.

He also cited, for his motivations, what he sees as the success of Huntington Woods’ ordinance and the fact that this measure is about creating protections for a potentially vulnerable group.

East Lansing was the first American city to provide civil rights protections to members of the LGBTQ community. © 2013-2020 East Lansing Info