BOSTON – A conservative group is vowing to challenge the state's newly enacted ban on a controversial form of therapy that seeks to alter teens' sexual orientation or gender identity.
Last week, Republican Gov. Charlie Baker signed legislation outlawing so-called "conversion therapy" by prohibiting licensed mental health professionals from using the techniques and requiring public school teachers and others to report suspected instances of it being used on minors.
The bill passed the Democratic-led House and Senate with bipartisan support, making Massachusetts the 16th state to approve such a ban.
But that came over objections from conservatives who argued that a ban would allow the state to meddle in private lives and restrict legitimate therapy techniques.
Andrew Beckwith, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, says "the fight is not over."
"We are working with local families and counselors and national legal experts to challenge this extraordinarily invasive assault on the rights of parents and the free speech of mental health providers," Beckwith said in a statement.
He said the new law "eliminates options for struggling youth who are questioning their sexuality or gender identity and really takes away the rights of parents to find the treatment that is best for their children and their families."
The group, which opposes same-sex marriage and other protections for LGBTQ individuals, says the ban also violates First Amendment rights to free speech.
Advocates for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals say conversion therapy is being used by therapists and religious groups in Massachusetts and elsewhere to change teens’ sexual orientation with what some describe as torture-like tactics.
Medical groups including the American Psychological Association and American Academy of Pediatrics condemn the practice.
"The so-called 'cures' can involve generating physical pain to dissuade victims from attractions to the same sex, or they can also involve cruel psychological ‘talk therapy’ which sets patients down the road to depression and despair," said Arline Isaacson, executive director of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus.
"Being LGBTQ is not a disease that requires a cure," she said. "It is not an illness that needs to be cured. And treating it as such is tantamount to child abuse."
Isaacson said similar laws in California and New Jersey have survived initial court challenges.
"We drafted our legislation based on what other states passed. And very importantly, we wrote the legislation based on what courts said when these laws were challenged in other jurisdictions," she said. "So we know that the law, as we drafted it, will pass constitutional muster."
The new law still allows non-licensed religious or faith-based counselors to provide pastoral counseling to minors. Adults may seek conversion therapy for themselves.
Senate Republicans, led by Minority Leader Bruce Tarr of Gloucester, sought unsuccessfully to delay a vote on the legislation in March while seeking an opinion from the state Supreme Judicial Court as to whether the bill violated constitutional protections on professional speech of health care providers, parental rights, privacy and patient confidentiality.
"We want to be clear we do not support conversion therapy or any other type of coercive therapy to change a person's sexual orientation," state Sen. Sen. Vinny deMacedo, R-Plymouth, said during debate on the bill. "We have concerns about how this bill infringes on the rights of mental health professionals to provide talk therapy using their expertise."
But Sen. Joan Lovely, D-Salem, who chairs the Senate Rules Committee that advanced the bill, says she believes it passes constitutional muster.
"It relies on the well-established authority of the state to regulate professional conduct," Lovely said. "Courts have recognized the state's right to intervene against potential harm to a child."
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org