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SPLC seeks to defend ban on conversion therapy challenged by hate group

The Southern Poverty Law Center and its allies filed a motion today to defend a ban on conversion therapy for minors enacted by Tampa, Florida, and challenged by an anti-LGBT hate group attempting to allow the discredited practice that attempts to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity

The SPLC filed the motion to intervene on behalf of Equality Florida, the state’s largest civil rights organization advocating on behalf of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender residents. The motion asks for Equality Florida to join the city of Tampa as a defendant, citing a direct and unique interest in the case.

The lawsuit was filed in December by Liberty Counsel, which challenged the ban on behalf of two licensed therapists who allege the ban violates their First Amendment rights. The Liberty Counsel is designated as an anti-LGBT hate group by the SPLC.

“Conversion therapy has been discredited by virtually all major American medical, psychiatric, psychological and professional counseling organizations, and worse, it causes real harm to those exposed to it,” said Scott McCoy, senior policy counsel for the SPLC. “When the city of Tampa adopted this ordinance last year, it chose to shield LGBT youth from this heinous practice and its harmful effects. We support Equality Florida’s stand to ensure that the well-being of these children remains protected.”

In addition to the motion to intervene, a motion to dismiss the lawsuit was filed. It noted that two federal circuit courts have rejected similar constitutional challenges to near-identical bans on conversion therapy. Another filing opposed the plaintiffs’ motion for preliminary injunction, noting the significant harms that could befall Tampa’s youth if the ban is enjoined and the plaintiffs are permitted to practice conversion therapy.

Liberty Counsel challenged the ban on behalf of Robert Vazzo and David Pickup – two licensed therapists who want to subject minors to conversion therapy. While Vazzo is licensed to practice in Florida, Pickup is not. Both were plaintiffs in Liberty Counsel’s failed challenge of the conversion therapy ban in California. Tampa unanimously passed its ban of the practice, which has been shown to lead to higher instances of depression, anxiety, substance abuse and even suicide, in April 2017.

“At Equality Florida, we fight to protect LGBTQ families and children, which is why participating in this lawsuit is at the core of our mission as Florida’s statewide LGBTQ organization,” said Nadine Smith, CEO of Equality Florida. “We worked closely with the city of Tampa, elected leaders, and members of the community to ensure LGBTQ young people are protected from this deceptive and utterly discredited practice of so-called conversion therapy.”

Liberty Counsel is known for filing litigation challenging the expansion of equal rights for the LGBT community – from defending anti-LGBT discrimination in businesses to fighting marriage equality.  Liberty Counsel has unsuccessfully challenged conversion therapy bans across the country.

More than a dozen local governments in Florida have adopted conversion therapy bans, which is more than any other state. After a unanimous vote on Tuesday, Broward County – Florida’s second-most populous county – adopted an ordinance prohibiting the harmful practice. 

The SPLC filed the motion to intervene with the National Center for Lesbian Rights and the law firm of Carlton Fields.