Utah Bans Conversion Therapy; Jersey Nixes Panic Defense

Governor Gary Herbert of Utah skipped past the State Legislature and used his rulemaking authority to implement a ban on conversion therapy on minors.
Twitter/ @GovHerbert

At a time when GOP lawmakers are trying to shove anti-LGBTQ bills through state legislatures across the nation, two bright spots emerged: Utah banned conversion therapy practiced on minors and New Jersey stopped allowing defendants in homicide cases to use the so-called “panic defense” as an excuse for killing queer people.

Utah banned conversion therapy — the debunked practice of trying to force a change in a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity — on minors through a proposed rule issued by Republican Governor Gary Herbert. The governor proposed the rule in November — after efforts to enact a ban through legislation faltered — and it took effect on January 22, after it underwent the required public comment period. Utah is the 19th state to bar licensed therapists from practicing conversion therapy on minors.

Herbert moved ahead with the proposed rule less than a year after Equality Utah’s executive director, Troy Williams, quit the state’s Youth Suicide Task Force when the governor sided with a watered-down version of the ban in the Legislature that did not restrict conversion therapy practiced on transgender youth and left open the possibility that “talk therapy” could still be used to try to change a minor’s sexual orientation.

Williams did not return a request for comment about the final version of the ban put in place, but there are some caveats. The law will not apply to clergy members or religious counselors who are “acting substantially in a pastoral or religious capacity and not in the capacity of a mental health therapist, or to a parent or grandparent who is a mental health therapist and who is acting substantially in the capacity of a parent or grandparent and not in the capacity of a mental health therapist.”

Still, Utah’s ban on conversion therapy is significant in a state where the deeply influential Mormon Church mounted opposition to the ban. The state, home to the largest share of Mormon Church followers in the nation, reported a 141 percent increase in suicides from 2011 to 2015 among those between the ages of 10 and 17.

New Jersey, meanwhile, became the ninth state to bar defendants from using panic defenses after Democratic Governor Phil Murphy signed the legislation that swiftly cleared both houses of the State Legislature. New York banned conversion therapy and the panic defense last year.

“Gay and trans panic defenses are rooted in homophobia and abhorrent excuses that should never be used to justify violence against vulnerable populations,” Murphy said in a written statement. “With this new law, we are enacting critical measures to protect our friends and neighbors in the LGBTQ+ community.”

New Jersey, which already banned conversion therapy on minors, also recently launched an LGBTQ-focused curriculum program in 12 schools and plans to expand the initiative statewide by the fall.