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Bill effectively blocking bans on conversion therapy moving through the legislature

A bill blocking bans on conversion therapy is moving through the legislature (FILE PHOTO Lauren Chapman/IPB News)
A bill blocking bans on conversion therapy is moving through the legislature (FILE PHOTO Lauren Chapman/IPB News)

Legislation to block local governments from banning various kinds of unlicensed behavioral health services – including religious counseling – is moving through the state legislature.

Senate Bill 350 comes in response to efforts by the West Lafayette City Council to ban conversion therapy last year. Conversion therapy is the widely discredited practice of trying to change a person's sexual orientation.

In 2022, the West Lafayette City Council introduced an ordinance that would have banned conversion therapy performed by unlicensed counselors. The city did not attempt to ban licensed counselors from the practice -- anticipating that they would be superseded by state law.

But at the time, even legal experts with LGBTQ groups said the ban on unlicensed therapists was on a shaky legal footing because of strong religious freedom protections in the U.S.

After local church Faith Church threatened legal action against the city, the ordinance was withdrawn. A separate resolution was passed condemning the practice of conversion therapy.

Sen. Jeff Raatz (R-Lawrenceburg) is behind the legislation, which would completely block future efforts to introduce bans like the one West Lafayette considered. He said even though the city’s proposed ban never actually passed, it is important to make sure the law is clear.

“The concept is to put it out front instead of having to dig, and having to look at the state’s constitution and the United States constitution – in cases like this, we want to be right out front and say ‘this far and no more,’” he said.

Raatz said the bill outlines that services either licensed or exempt from licensing are managed by the state – not local jurisdictions.

“The way their ordinance is written, they made a delineation between licensed and exempt, and the exempt statute is as clear as the licensing statute,” Raatz said. “...the political subdivision cannot regulate the service, and it traditionally has never done anything like that. Those are sanctioned by the state.”

Faith Church pastor Steve Viars has denied practicing conversion therapy, but has said the church 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 original West Lafayette ordinance.

West Lafayette City Council member David Sanders said before introducing the ordinance, he wasn’t aware that Faith Church was doing anything that could be classified as conversion therapy.

“They say they don’t do conversion therapy, but they might do what the definition of conversion therapy – that everyone uses -- states,” he said.

Sanders called the state bill “ill-thought.”

“It will have bad implications in the future – both for people who have to undergo this sort of therapy, but also for the ability of local authorities to be able to confront issues as they happen,” he said.

Sanders’ concern about local control is one echoed by Rep. Chris Campbell (D-West Lafayette).

“This bill really oversteps that in stepping over the local officials in making those local decisions,” she said.

It’s an argument that Raatz said doesn’t hold a lot of water for him.

“It’s not overriding local rule at all in my opinion,” he said. “If an individual is licensed or they are exempted, you cannot stop them from providing that service. Those are functions of the state, sanctioned by the state, not locals.”

When reached for comment on the bill, Faith Church Pastor Steve Viars said in a statement that he was glad SB 350 was moving through the legislature.

“Hoosiers should be able to choose the kind of counseling they desire without interference from local government units,” he wrote. “This bill is good for both the freedom of speech and religious liberty.”

The bill passed out of the House and has returned to the Senate for a final vote.