Lincoln became the first city in Nebraska to ban conversion therapy on LGBTQ youth after a 5-1 City Council vote Monday.
The move bars counselors, psychiatrists and therapists from seeking to change the sexual orientation or gender identity of a minor. Professional associations have condemned the therapy over concerns it damages the mental health of children and can lead to high incidences of suicide.
Survivors testified at a Feb. 8 public hearing about the shame, anxiety and depression they felt when subjected to conversion therapy.
Troy Stevenson of The Trevor Project, which advocates for conversion therapy bans, said the therapy is ineffective and only harms youths’ mental health.
“This is a tremendous victory for the LGBTQ youth of Lincoln, and we hope it will encourage the passage of similar protections throughout the rest of the Cornhusker State,” Stevenson said in a press release.
Opponents at the public hearing said the ban amounted to a subtle form of religious discrimination and it unlawfully infringes on the speech of therapists and their clients.
City Councilman James Michael Bowers said his ordinance would not limit the speech of religious clergy or parents to counsel children in accord with their beliefs, and federal courts have upheld similar conversion therapy bans.
But Thomas More Society attorney Michael McHale told the council he believes the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals governing Nebraska would strike down the ordinance as unconstitutional.
McHale argued at the public hearing that the ordinance unlawfully restricts discussion on an issue to only one viewpoint in sessions initiated by the client.
Last November, a divided federal appeals court struck down conversion therapy bans enacted in Florida cities.
“Therefore, if the City Council adopts this proposed ordinance, Lincoln taxpayers will likely be on the hook for hundreds of thousands of dollars in attorney fees,” McHale said in a press release.
Lincoln City Attorney Yohance Christie said he believes the ordinance could successfully be defended in court and noted the case regarding the Florida laws is pending.
Councilman Roy Christensen, who cast the lone no vote, questioned whether the city should interfere with a profession that is governed by state licensing boards.
Similar proposals to ban conversion therapy on a statewide level have not proceeded to a vote.
Councilwoman Tammy Ward called the measure an important human rights measure and one that showcases the city’s values.
Council members Sändra Washington, Bennie Shobe and Jane Raybould voted with Ward and Bowers to approve the measure. Councilman Richard Meginnis was absent from Monday’s meeting.
Lincoln Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird applauded the council’s vote.
“I am heartened by the council’s action this evening to protect the safety and health of youth in our community,” the mayor said in a statement Monday. “Conversion therapy is a discredited practice that can cause lasting harm.”
Bowers, who is gay, said the testimony of conversion therapy survivors, and the ordinance’s passage, sends a hopeful method of support to LGBTQ youth who may still be in the closet.
“That message saves lives, and this vote will too,” Bowers said.