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Gay-conversion therapy ruled illegal in California

A U.S. federal appeals court on Thursday upheld California's law prohibiting licensed professionals from counseling gay and lesbian minors to change their sexu
Gay conversion ban upheld in California - Michele Richinick - 08/29/2013
Nikolas Lemos waves a rainbow flag as people enter San Francisco City Hall in anticipation of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage on June 26, 2013.

A U.S. federal appeals court on Thursday upheld California's law prohibiting licensed professionals from counseling gay and lesbian minors to change their sexual orientation. But the legal counsel representing the plaintiffs who sued to overturn the law last year is threatening to take the case to the Supreme Court.

California Gov. Jerry Brown signed the bill to ban therapists, psychologists, doctors, and social workers from providing so-called "gay-conversion therapy" to patients under 18, last year.

The law prevents state-licensed mental health providers from trying to change sexual orientation. In its opinion upholding the law, San Francisco's Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals found that it, "does not violate the free speech rights of practitioners or minor patients, is neither vague nor overbroad, and does not violate parents' fundamental rights."

"California has authority to prohibit licensed mental health providers from administering therapies that the legislature has deemed harmful," the judges added. "The fact that speech may be used to carry out those therapies does not turn the prohibitions of conduct into prohibitions of speech."

Liberty Counsel, the legal group representing plaintiffs who sued to overturn the law, filed Pickup v. Brown in December 2012 on behalf of minors who received the treatment. The law, which was planned to take effect on Jan. 1, 2013, had its implementation delayed before the end of last year after the plaintiffs asked for a rehearing of the case.

"We are disappointed with this decision, especially our clients who are in the midst of counseling now," Mat Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel, told MSNBC. "Minors currently in counseling who have been there for a year or more have benefited. Their self-esteem has increased, their anger has decreased...and this is the counsel that they want and is helping them."

The group has seven days to motion for the court to rehear the case. If the full Ninth Circuit doesn't weigh in on it, Liberty Counsel will appeal to the Supreme Court, Staver said.

If a petition is not filed and the court's ban is put into effect soon, clients will be forced to stop counseling abruptly. That will be "significantly damaging" to them, Staver said.

A different three-judge panel issued the verdict Thursday than the individuals who allowed the injunction to take effect at the end of last year.

There are various risks and no unique benefits to gay-conversion therapy, Dr. Judith Glassgold of the American Psychological Association told MSNBC.

"It could cause family alienation or distress because some of the sexual orientation change efforts blame parents for their children's sexual orientation. It could cause an increase in self-destructive behaviors," said Dr. Glassgold, who chairs the task force that recently published the report, "Appropriate Therapeutic Responses to Sexual Orientation."

Support groups that prevent individuals from feeling alone would be "equally helpful" to minors who received gay-conversion therapy in the past, she said. For example, instead of telling a young man to go to the gym and engage in typical behaviors and activities, professionals can provide him emotional encouragement and understanding.

"[Gay-conversion therapy] could have some minor effects to perhaps tell someone they're not alone, but those effects are not unique," she said. "They are what happens if you go to any therapy."

Liberty Counsel filed an identical lawsuit last week in New Jersey after the state's Gov. Chris Christie signed a similar bill into law that bans the therapy.

"Chris Christie says that there is evidence of harm," Staver said. "But the problems is…there is evidence of benefit as well."