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Nevada Anti-‘Conversion Therapy’ Law Cites Loophole for Pastors

Nicole Knight

"Conversion therapy" bans in eight states lack the religious language found in the bill passed through Nevada's Democratic-majority legislature.

Legislation Nevada’s Republican governor signed Wednesday making it illegal to perform anti-LBGTQ “conversion therapy,” looks to be the first in the country to acknowledge an exception for religious counselors.

Lawmakers or officials in California, Vermont, Oregon, New Jersey, New York, Illinois, New Mexico, and Connecticut have passed or enacted similar measures to prohibit “conversion therapy,” the harmful practice of attempting to change the sexual orientation or gender expression of a child or teen.

Rewire’s review of the bills in these states indicates Nevada is the first state to write an acknowledgement that its legislation doesn’t apply to pastors and counselors acting in a religious capacity.

While the Nevada bill makes it illegal for licensed health-care professionals to provide “sexual orientation or gender identity conversion therapies to children who are under 18 years of age,” the legislation’s overview makes explicit an exception for religious counselors and clergy:

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“However, there is nothing in this bill that regulates or prohibits licensed health care professionals from engaging in expressive speech or religious counseling with such children if the licensed health care professionals: (1) are acting in their pastoral or religious capacity as members of the clergy or as religious counselors; and (2) do not hold themselves out as operating pursuant to their professional licenses when so acting in their pastoral or religious capacity.”

Democrats hold majorities in both of Nevada’s legislative chambers. The bill goes into effect January 1, 2018.

Assemblyman Nelson Araujo (D-Las Vegas) introduced the religious language in an amendment. Araujo, who is openly gay and the author of a state marriage equality bill, told Rewire he introduced the amendment at the request of the sponsor, state Sen. David Parks (D-Las Vegas). Araujo said the language was only included in the overview of the bill and is intended to clarify that the legislation doesn’t challenge the right to expressive speech and religious counseling.

Citing court rulings in other states, legislative attorneys said the Nevada bill won’t limit licensed therapists from practicing “conversion therapy” when they’re acting in a religious capacity, as the Nevada Appeal reported.

Carolyn Reyes, youth policy counsel with the National Center for Lesbian Rights and director of the Born Perfect campaign, applauded the bill as a “step forward … to protect LGBTQ youth.” She told Rewire the religious language makes “a distinction without a difference.”

“It states outright what is implied through separation of church and state in the other states’ laws,” she said in an email.

Even so, a 2012 California law making it illegal to perform “conversion therapy” on minors included no language to acknowledge religious exceptions. That law survived a court challenge brought by religious groups and families who argued it violated their First Amendment rights, as Rewire reported. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case.

“Conversion therapy” bans in Vermont, Oregon, New Jersey, Illinois, New Mexico, and Connecticut also lack the religious language found in the Nevada bill. New York has banned insurers from covering conversion therapy, and has barred the practice at state mental health facilities.

Jessica Mason Pieklo, Rewire’s vice president of law and the courts, sees the Nevada legislation’s religious language as a “potentially bigger issue, and one ripe for abuse.”

“It doesn’t change the ban, but it sends a clear signal to the right in how they can work around it,” she said.

Vice President Mike Pence is one of the best-known supporters of “conversion therapy.” As a congressional candidate in 2000, he advocated for diverting HIV treatment funds to “institutions which provide assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behavior.”

All major mental health and pediatric groups, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Counseling Association, the American Psychological Association, the American School Counselor Association, and the National Association of School Psychologists, reject the notion that homosexuality is a disorder that requires treatment.

The health risks of so-called conversion therapy are significant, and include depression, anxiety, and self-destructive behavior, according to the American Psychiatric Association.

“Conversion therapy has been disavowed by medical experts and is considered a non-effective method of treatment that can cause harm to an adolescent,” Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval said. “This law will help protect some of our state’s most vulnerable youth.”


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