By Oscar Lopez
MEXICO CITY, Sept 12 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - New York City took the first step on Thursday toward repealing its ban on gay conversion therapy, aiming to avert a legal challenge that could put LGBT+ rights at risk nationwide, officials said.
The legal challenge has come from a conservative Christian group, the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), that claims the therapy ban is censorship of free speech and unconstitutional.
Several U.S. states and cities have banned conversion therapy, which rests on the belief that being LGBT+ is a mental illness that can be cured, either for minors or altogether.
Hundreds of thousands of LGBT+ Americans have undergone the widely discredited process that uses psychological, spiritual or physical practices, according to a study by the UCLA School of Law in California.
A bill to repeal the therapy ban in the New York City Council was introduced on Thursday by its speaker, Corey Johnson, who said he had consulted with LGBT+ rights advocates.
Advocates fear the legal challenge by the ADF could make its way through the increasingly conservative federal courts to the U.S. Supreme Court.
President Donald Trump has made scores of conservative judicial appointments, including two Supreme Court justices.
If successful, advocates fear, the ADF case could give the conservative courts an opportunity to set legal precedents that could have broad negative implications for LGBT+ rights.
"The courts have changed considerably over the last few years, and we cannot count on them to rule in favor of much-needed protections for the LGBTQ community," Johnson, who is openly gay, said in a statement emailed to the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"This was a painful decision," he said. "I listened to the advocates who know the issue best, as well as my heart. I will never stop fighting for the community I am so proud to be a part of."
In the ADF's view, the ban threatened the constitutional right of New York citizens "to have whatever private conversations they want to have," said Roger Brooks, an attorney for the group, in a statement.
"A Supreme Court decision making clear that psychologists, counselors, and their patients continue to enjoy their First Amendment rights ... would be an important victory for free speech," he said.
Attorneys for ADF also represented a Colorado baker who won a Supreme Court victory in 2018 over his refusal to make a wedding cake for a gay couple.
The ADF is listed as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights organization that tracks and monitors right-wing groups.
If New York City repeals its ban, "that will be the right thing to do," the ADF said in a statement. "We commend them for it."
Nationwide, however, efforts to ban conversion therapy for people under age 18 are gaining momentum, and this year New York state lawmakers approved such a ban.
"The City Council's action will stop unnecessary litigation after the passage of statewide protections and save valuable resources that can be used to help LGBTQ residents," said Amit Paley, the head of The Trevor Project, a suicide prevention group, in an email.
Eighteen U.S. states have banned conversion therapy for minors, with legislation pending in 21 more, according to Born Perfect, an advocacy group that wants to ban the practice.
Most children are signed up by their parents. (Reporting by Oscar Lopez, Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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