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Government / WBAA

West Lafayette ordinance would ban conversion therapy from unlicensed therapists. Advocates say licensed therapists still pose a problem

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West Lafayette is set to consider a ban on conversion therapy at its next city council meeting (WBAA News/Ben Thorp)

West Lafayette’s city council is expected to consider a ban on unlicensed therapists performing conversion therapy at its meeting next month, but some advocates say licensed therapists still pose a problem.

Conversion therapy is the pseudoscientific practice of trying to change a person’s sexual orientation through various interventions. Numerous medical institutions, including the American Psychiatric Association, have deemed the therapy ineffective and potentially harmful.

Enforcement under the city ordinance is reserved for “unlicensed persons”, who would incur a $1,000 fine for engaging in conversion therapy with a minor person. Per the ordinance, an unlicensed person is someone who provides counseling or psychotherapy but is not licensed through the state of Indiana.

In an open letter released ahead of the first city council meeting on the ordinance, Faith Church senior pastor Steve Viars said the church has never practiced conversion therapy, but said it could “possibly be accused” of “efforts to change gender expressions” or “reduce… romantic attractions or feelings towards individuals of the same gender,” language outlined in the ordinance.

Faith Church did not respond to WBAA’s request for comment on the ordinance.

The ordinance was tabled in December after pushback from the church and resistance from West Lafayette Mayor John Dennis, who said that he would veto the ordinance as written. Dennis, and some councilmembers, raised concerns that the ordinance would be unenforceable.

“We are getting into areas in some cases that might breach the relationship between a child and its parent, a pastor and its constituent,” Dennis told the council at the December meeting.

Since then, Lafayette Citizens for Freedom – a local religious advocacy group – has embarked on a campaign intended to show the council how much some members of the local community oppose the ordinance.

The group’s website includes form letters which oppose the ban to send to councilors without a stated position on the ordinance – as well as a link to a Change.org petition with over 12,000 signatures.

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Lafayette Citizens for Freedom website with a form letter urging counselors to vote against a conversion therapy ban

The website also links to various religious texts taking stances against homosexuality and trans identity, and contends that “the City would be forcing parents to raise children against their convictions.”  

Mathew Shurka is the co-founder of Born Perfect, a legal advocacy group aimed at banning the practice of conversion therapy. He said efforts to ban conversion therapy have largely focused on licensed therapists - because federal religious freedom laws are strong and leave such bans open to easy challenges.

“There are lack of legal grounds right now that make it very complicated to pass an ordinance that would only specify non-licensed individuals,” he said. “It sort of doesn’t make sense to target only non-licensed individuals.”

Shurka said he believes the West Lafayette City Council is coming from the right place.

“They’re looking and seeking and trying to find ways to protect LGBTQ youth, and we know from organizations like Born Perfect and others that non-licensed individuals are the biggest problems here,” he said.

But, despite this, Shurka said Born Perfect isn’t advising lawmakers to pursue bans on non-licensed therapists performing conversion therapy.

“Because our laws, federally, our religious freedom laws are so strong we’re not advising passing legislation - or a local ordinance like we have here - that would regulate non-licensed… because the likelihood of it being challenged is very high,” he said. “The bills should include licensed professionals, and I’m more interested in that right now because those bills are achievable and we’re creating a standard for what credible, licensed therapists should and should not be doing.”

The West Lafayette ordinance outlines the consensus views among a wide body of psychological, psychiatric, medical associations, and counseling organizations against conversion therapy - noting that the city “strongly discourages” licensed persons from engaging in conversion therapy.

City council member David Sanders, who introduced the ordinance, said it does not include a ban on licensed therapists because of concerns state law would supersede the ordinance.

“Licensing of therapists is a state function – there are precise state rules, and licensing is also done by professional organizations at the state level, not the local level,” he said. “So it was the opinion of legal counsel that we, as a municipality within the state of Indiana, do not have the right to affect the practice of licensed counselors.”

But Shurka said licensed therapists still pose a problem. Born Perfect tries to estimate the numbers of therapists - licensed and unlicensed - providing conversion therapy in a region based on reports from survivors of the practice.

“We track conversion therapists by state. It’s not something we publicize, because how we build that data is either survivors of conversion therapy share with us ‘I experienced conversion therapy by so and so person,’” he said. “If that name keeps repeating we’re able to build data on that, whether it’s a licensed person or non-licensed person.”

Shurka said the numbers of therapists linked to conversion therapy in the Greater Lafayette area are high.

“Just in the Lafayette city area, which includes West Lafayette, there are 49 therapists that have been associated with doing conversion therapy,” he said said. “I have to say - this is pretty high. We track these nationally and this is pretty high for a single city.”

Across Indiana, Born Perfect says it estimates there are 226 therapists and 34 organizations affiliated with or performing conversion therapy.

25 states and the District of Columbia ban conversion therapy from licensed practitioners for minors in part or in full. In Indiana, bills prohibiting conversion therapy have been introduced without moving forward.

Shurka, himself a survivor of conversion therapy, said whether administered by licensed or unlicensed therapists, the practice has long-term consequences.

“As a gay man dating another gay man, I still sometimes hear the rhetoric of – what if we’re just two mentally ill people dating each other because that’s what my conversion therapist said? Those thoughts where you’re constantly questioning yourself,” he said. “That comes with depression, the stats are like drug addiction, homelessness, the worst stats are around suicide.”

A 2020 study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that roughly 7% of LGB adults in the country between the age of 18-59 have been subjected to conversion therapy. Of those, 81% received conversion therapy from a religious leader and 31% received it from a health care provider (and some received it from both).

The study also found that, compared with LGB persons who have not undergone conversion therapy, those who have undergone the therapy experienced 92% greater odds of suicidal ideation and 75% greater odds of attempting to commit suicide (a summary of the study is here, and the full study is here).

“Rebuilding family relationships takes a lifetime,” Shurka said. “One, are your parents going to become accepting of you, and then, for the individuals like myself, do you have forgiveness for your parents if they are there for you? That’s what I find many LGBTQ kids dealing with. ‘I can’t believe my mother or father put me through this. I don’t care if they mean well, it destroyed years of my life.’”

Councilmember David Sanders said changes to the city’s ordinance are underway, and that he’s hopeful it has the support to be able to pass.

“We’re going to have language specifically about psychological and physical harm as being necessary for enforcement,” he said. “For the licensed counselors, we’re going to change the language from “discourage” to urging the state legislature to actually pass a ban on conversion therapy by licensed counselors. That’s the language we’re talking about inserting as an amendment.”

When told about Born Perfect’s data regarding the number of therapists practicing conversion therapy in the area, Sanders said he was surprised.

“I did not know that was the case,” he said. “I hope that information will encourage people to support action on this measure.”

Shurka, for his part, said conversion therapy often flies under the radar of state and local officials.

“Every time a conversion therapy bill gets introduced there will always be members of the city council or state legislature that will say ‘this doesn’t really happen here,’” he said. “And then you get the pushback. They all come out. This is a repeated story.”