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Wisconsin Committee Strikes Down Conversion Therapy Ban

The Joint Committee on Administrative Rules voted along party lines to strike down the rule that labeled conversion therapy as an unprofessional intervention to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

(TNS) — A recently implemented rule barring licensed professionals from attempting to change a person's sexual orientation or gender identity through what's known as "conversion therapy" has been struck down by a GOP-led legislative committee.

Following roughly four hours of testimony Thursday, with the majority of those speaking in opposition to the use of conversion therapy, the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules voted 6-4 along party lines to strike the rule, which went into effect in December and defines intervention by a marriage and family therapist, counselor and social worker to try to change a person's sexual orientation or gender identity as unprofessional conduct.

The Republican co-chairs of the committee said several times during Thursday's meeting that the discussion was not about the controversial and scientifically discredited practice of conversion therapy, but whether the the state Department of Safety and Professional Services or the counselors examining board are allowed to implement the rule under state law.

"The committee's mission today is to decide whether the board overstepped its legislative authority," said Sen. Steve Nass, R- Whitewater, co-chairman of the committee. "It isn't to sit here and debate and decide if conversion therapy is good or bad or indifferent. That belongs before a legislative committee."

"Just because you say we're not doing what we're about to do doesn't mean you're not doing it, which is legalizing conversion therapy," Sen. Chris Larson, D- Milwaukee, said.

Based on a process launched in 2018 under former GOP Gov. Scott Walker's administration, the DSPS board that licenses marriage and family therapists, counselors and social workers developed a rule in 2020 that includes a provision prohibiting licensed professionals from practicing conversion therapy.

In 2021, the rules committee introduced a bill to block the rule. The Republican-led Assembly and Senate placed that bill in committee, temporarily blocking the rule for the rest of the Legislature's two-year session and preventing it from getting to the desk of Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, who would have been able to veto it. Previous bills seeking to prohibit conversion therapy have failed to gain any traction in the GOP-led chambers.

The DSPS board's original rule went back into effect last month after the conclusion of the previous legislative session, prompting Thursday's vote.

Tammy Scheidegger, an associate professor with Mount Mary University's professional counseling program, said any licensed professional who practices conversion therapy is "acting unethically and engaging in harm to their clients." Suspending the rule, she said, would be "reckless and harmful."

"What we're speaking about here is understanding that all members of mental health professions need to bracket their own viewpoints, opinions, all of those things, in order to work competently with the clients that we serve," she said. "We're not there to tell a client do anything, to not do anything. We're there to sit with them and help them make decisions for themselves."

Julaine Appling, president of the conservative organization Wisconsin Family Action, said the rule must be suspended as it infringes on the free speech and religious rights of counselors and therapists who provide conversion therapy.

"They aren't trying to pray away the gay," Appling said while taking questions from Democratic members of the committee. "They are trying to talk to them from a viewpoint that you disagree with. That doesn't make it torture."

While the rule pertained to any therapist, conversion therapy for minors has been banned in more than a dozen Wisconsin cities, including Milwaukee, Madison, Sun Prairie, West Allis, Shorewood, Cudahy, Glendale, Racine, Sheboygan, Appleton, Eau Claire and Superior. At least 20 states and the District of Columbia have also banned the practice with minors.

The Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ advocacy group, calls conversion therapy, also known as "reparative therapy," "dangerous and discredited" and it has been rejected by mainstream medical and mental health organizations for decades. Both the American Psychological Association and American Medical Association have also denounced conversion therapy.

"There is no professional medical or therapy or counseling association, especially that provides medical insurance-reimbursed service, that supports that practice," said Brian Michel, chief operating office with the Mental Health America of Wisconsin.

(c)2023 The Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, Wis.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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