The fate of a highly charged push in the Minnesota Legislature to ban the controversial practice of conversion therapy aimed at changing patients’ sexual orientation now hangs on two pivotal words.
While House Democrats have pushed to bar therapies aimed at changing sexual orientation or gender identity, some Republican lawmakers have sought a compromise that would limit a ban to practices deemed “aversive or coercive.”
With just five days left in the legislative session, lawmakers, LGBTQ activists and religious groups are tangling over the competing proposals to restrict a practice that critics consider antiquated and which has been widely condemned by mental health professionals and banned in some form in at least 16 states.
House Democrats approved language to end conversion therapy for minors and vulnerable adults as part of a budget bill late last month. An attempt to insert similar language in the Republican-controlled Senate failed on a party-line vote after an emotional late-night debate. Some GOP members threatened to torpedo the entire spending package if a conversion therapy ban was attached.
Following that vote, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, a Nisswa Republican who has grappled with the issue in his own family, signaled he’d be willing to support a version of the ban that provided more protections for therapists and patients to discuss what he characterizes as unwanted same-sex attraction.
Christian conservatives in the Legislature have cast it as a question of religious freedom.
Intense efforts to craft a compromise — or persuade more moderate Senate Republicans to back the DFL proposal — are now underway in the closing days of the session as lawmakers finalize budget bills ahead of a May 20 deadline for the Legislature to adjourn.
One such proposal, from Sen. Scott Jensen, R-Chaska, would limit the proposed restrictions to therapy that is “aversive or coercive.”
Jensen, who hopes to offer his amendment at a committee hearing in the coming days, says the addition is necessary to assuage concerns of some members of his caucus. Gazelka and the Minnesota Catholic Conference, two Capitol power players who wield considerable influence over the Republican caucus, support including the compromise language.
But DFL lawmakers and advocates supporting the House bill say that modification is unnecessary. They argue that the language will undermine the intent of their legislation, allowing attempts at harmful conversion therapy as long as it does not meet the narrow legal definitions for aversive or coercive conduct.
“No one who is interested in advancing this matter in good faith wants to pass a law that has no practical positive effect,” Sen. Scott Dibble and Rep. Hunter Cantrell, the DFL lawmakers sponsoring the original ban, wrote in a letter to Jensen this week. “Similarly, no one is interested in passing a bill that simply makes legislators ‘feel good,’ and [we] are especially not interested in giving political cover for an otherwise meaningful new policy.”
Jensen, a family doctor, said he worries that the DFL language might constrain conversations between doctors and patients on personal issues that are separate from conversion therapy. But he also said he understands critics’ concerns that a restriction limited to aversive and coercive conduct might not be sufficient.
Meanwhile, the threat remains from Republican colleagues who vowed to vote down an entire budget bill if the outright ban proposed by Democrats is included in a final package.
“Unfortunately, two words have become the absolute linchpin for this legislation,” Jensen said.
Jensen is encouraged by colleagues urging him to continue to work toward a deal. But with both sides digging in, he sees the chance of passing the ban as part of the budget at “somewhere around 10%.”
Supporters of the ban, meanwhile, are ramping up their efforts to get Republican senators, including Jensen, to vote for the original DFL version. On Wednesday, they rallied outside a Senate committee hearing and, later, outside Gazelka’s office.
Dibble, a longtime proponent of the ban, told supporters that while they are “ absolutely sailing into headwinds,” he described the Republican caucus as being in “turmoil” over the issue. He urged supporters not to give up hope.
Jensen, too, is continuing to talk with both sides in hopes of getting a ban passed by Monday. The key, he said, is to find middle ground: “Even if one side digs their heels in, we might still get enough of those in-limbo legislators to say, ‘Hey, this is reasonable, I’m going to do it.’ ”