Minneapolis has banned conversion therapy for minors, joining dozens of cities in prohibiting counseling that seeks to change someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
The City Council passed the conversion therapy ordinance unanimously Friday. When Mayor Jacob Frey signs it — something he vowed to do “as soon as it hits my desk” — Minneapolis will become the first city in Minnesota to prohibit the practice, which is widely condemned by mental health professionals.
“We have a moral obligation to step up where partisan politics at higher levels of government have failed our kids,” Council Member Phillipe Cunningham, who co-authored the ordinance, said in a statement Friday. “I ask for other cities and towns to also step up for the children and young people across our great state.”
These types of citywide bans have become increasingly common when state legislatures cannot reach agreement over whether to enact similar restrictions. Earlier this year in the Minnesota Legislature, a statewide ban introduced by House DFLers failed to make it through the Republican-controlled Senate.
Cities have rarely enforced those restrictions, and some have been subject to court challenges. Already, one Christian advocacy group that recently succeeded in striking down Tampa’s ban has begun watching developments in Minneapolis and communicating with counselors in Minnesota.
“It’s all political and it’s enforcing an agenda, and at some point in the future, that political agenda will run head on to the U.S. Supreme Court,” said Mat Staver, founder and chairman of Florida-based Liberty Counsel.
Advocates on either side of the issue agree on little, including the definition of conversion therapy. The Minneapolis ordinance defines it as “any practice or treatment that seeks to change an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity, including efforts to change behaviors or gender expressions or to eliminate or reduce sexual or romantic attractions or feelings toward individuals of the same gender.”
Groups like Staver’s have argued that some conversion therapy bans violate counselors’ or clients’ rights to freedom of religion and speech or fly in the face of laws that say some states regulate medical practices.
But supporters of the bans — including most major medical organizations — argue that they are essential to preserving public health and protecting minors, who can’t make medical decisions on their own. Supporters point to information from the American Psychiatric Association that shows that conversion therapy is associated with depression, anxiety, social withdrawal and substance abuse, among other things.
“Conversion therapy, which is actually conversion abuse, is a blight on our country,” Cunningham said. “It is tantamount to torture.”
Minneapolis officials said Friday that they are prepared to defend the ban. Council Vice President Andrea Jenkins, who co-authored the ordinance with Cunningham, noted that they worked closely with the city’s attorney to minimize the chances that any measures struck down by other courts would be included in Minneapolis’ ban.
Minneapolis included an exception for clergy members who are not acting as mental health professionals, but providing religious advice. And the city applied the ban only to the treatment of minors, noting that some adults had challenged bans on First Amendment grounds.
“We’re certainly prepared,” Jenkins said.
It’s unclear how many children in Minneapolis are exposed to conversion therapy. Tracking that is notoriously difficult.
“Counselors are mandated by federal law and by codes of ethics, such as ours, to keep accurate records,” said Lynn Linde, chief knowledge & learning officer for the American Counseling Association. “But, I think that most counselors would not write down ‘conversion therapy.’ It’s certainly not a billing code.”
As a result, Minneapolis will rely on people to file complaints before starting investigations. If they find violations, many cities can impose fines. But in most places, licensing for mental health providers still runs through the state level.
Some of the cities that enacted bans haven’t yet used them. The city of Tampa noted in a legal filing last year that it had not received any complaints alleging that a child had been harmed by such therapy within its borders. The cities of Pittsburgh and Seattle said they hadn’t cited or fined anyone under their ordinances either.
“We haven’t issued any fines, simply because no one has ever reported an incident in the three years that this has been a law,” said Loren Othon, an adviser in the Seattle Office for Civil Rights.
Othon, like some officials in Minneapolis, hopes that the mere presence of a ban can serve as a deterrent.
“What I can say is this is also important from an informational campaign purpose,” Frey said. “People should be aware of this abusive practice, know how to identify it and then, ultimately, that a reporting mechanism exists.”