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Liberty Counsel sues Maryland governor over conversion therapy ban

Plaintiff Christopher Doyle says ban violates free speech, religious liberty.
Credit: AlessandroPhoto / iStock

WASHINGTON — A Northern Virginia-based counselor filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the governor and attorney general of Maryland last week, claiming the state’s law banning gay conversion therapy for minors violates his constitutional rights.

Christopher Doyle filed the suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland on Friday. The lawsuit argues that Maryland’s ban on conversion therapy for minors, which was signed into law by Gov. Larry Hogan last year, “severely impairs Plaintiff’s clients and all minors’ rights to self-determination, their right to prioritize their religious and moral values, and their right to receive effective counseling consistent with those values.”

Doyle is being represented in the lawsuit by Liberty Counsel, a Florida-based organization which pursues litigation aimed at advancing and defending conservative, evangelical Christian causes. In 2015, the organization represented Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses after the Supreme Court’s Obergefell v. Hodges decision made same-sex marriage legal nationwide.

Maryland became the 11th state to pass a ban on conversion therapy for minors last year. Supporters like Sen. Richard Madaleno, a Democratic sponsor of the bill, said they believed it was an important step to protect LGBTQ youth. Last week, New York became the 15th state to ban the practice for minors, and Virginia, where Doyle lives and practices, is currently pursuing a regulatory ban on the practice.

READ MORE | Virginia Board of Psychology votes to ban gay conversion therapy for minors | D.C. could be the 2nd city in the U.S. to ban conversion therapy for some adults

Doyle, who is also the executive director of the Institute for Health Families and former director of the International Healing Foundation – an organization which claims to have “helped thousands of individuals and families struggling with sexual orientation” – says in his lawsuit that he is currently counseling five minor clients with “unwanted same-sex attractions and/or gender identity conflicts,” and consulting with roughly a dozen families with minor children on similar issues.

“These minor clients will suffer significant mental health consequences if they are required to halt their counseling to eliminate, reduce, or resolve unwanted same-sex attractions,behaviors, or identity because of SB 1028, which consequences potentially include anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation,” the lawsuit claims.

Doyle claims in the lawsuit that many of his clients are Christians, Mormons, Jews or Muslims with sincerely held religious beliefs that “homosexuality is harmful and destructive,” and who “therefore seek counseling in order to live a lifestyle that is in congruence with their faith and to conform their identities, concepts of self, attractions, and behaviors to their sincerely held religious beliefs.” He argues that by prohibiting his clients from doing so, the state of Maryland is violating their, and his, First and Fourteenth Amendment rights to freedom of speech and religion.

Every major professional mental health organization in the country opposes conversion therapy; over the past two decades, all of them have released some version of a statement echoing the American Psychiatric Association, which said in 2013 that, “No credible evidence exists that any mental health intervention can reliably and safely change sexual orientation; nor, from a mental health perspective does sexual orientation need to be changed.”

Efforts to mount legal challenges to conversion therapy bans in other states have failed. In 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision that California’s ban did not infringe upon the religious rights of Donald Welch, a minister and therapist who brought the challenge.

Doyle’s suit asks for the court to file a permanent injunction against the law, and for monetary damages to be determined at trial. As of Tuesday afternoon, the Maryland Attorney General’s Office had not filed a response.