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Federal lawsuit seeks to overturn Maryland's ban on conversion therapy

A psychotherapist has filed a federal lawsuit seeking to overturn Maryland’s ban on treating minors with conversion therapy, a controversial practice that attempts to change clients’ homosexual orientation.

Christopher Doyle is suing Gov. Larry Hogan and Attorney General Brian Frosh in U.S. District Court in Maryland, saying the ban violated his rights to free speech and the practice of religion, as well as the rights of clients “to prioritize their religious and moral values above unwanted same-sex sexual attractions, behaviors, or identities.”

A spokesperson for the governor could not be reached for comment. The attorney general’s office said it had not seen the suit.

Last year, Maryland became the 11th state to ban conversion therapy for LGBT youth. Other state legislatures, including New York’s last week, have passed similar bans.

In a dramatic moment when Maryland legislators were considering the ban last year, then-Del. Meagan Simonaire told colleagues her mother and father — himself a state senator who had spoken in favor of keeping the practice legal — had suggested to her when she was in her early 20s that she try the therapy to “fix” her bisexuality. Sen. Bryan Simonaire, an Anne Arundel Republican, later said he and his wife wanted their daughter to seek Christian counseling, not conversion therapy.

“It’s like a punch in the gut,” Meagan Simonaire said of the lawsuit. “After we’ve come so far, it’s very disappointing, and scary.”

She subsequently switched her party affiliation from Republican to Democrat, but said she decided not to seek another term because her views had changed so much. While she doesn’t rule out running for office again in the future, for now she is working as a cosmetic tattoo artist in Northern Virginia.

She said her own experience, seeking counseling from several pastors, made her realize how damaging conversion therapy can be, even when practitioners don’t call it that. “It says you’re broken and we need to fix that,” said Simonaire, who said she now identifies as queer, with a preference for women although she’s had relationships with men in the past.

Her father did not respond to a request for comment. Meagan Simonaire said that while they may have had differences, “we love each other.”

Doyle said in an interview that the ban prevents him from helping minors who have an “unwanted same sex attraction.”

“A counselor has to say, ‘I understand you have sexual feelings you don’t want. I can’t help you,’” said Doyle, who lives in Virginia and practices there and in Maryland. “If your goal is to change your sexual attraction, that’s not a goal you can have in Maryland. You’ll have to work on something else until you’re 18.” HIs suit was filed Friday.

The American Psychological Association is among the groups that oppose conversion therapy. It said it “does not believe that same-sex orientation should or needs to be changed, and efforts to do so represent a significant risk of harm by subjecting individuals to forms of treatment which have not been scientifically validated and by undermining self-esteem when sexual orientation fails to change.”

“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,” the association’s statement said.

Doyle’s suit says the association, in considering its stance on conversion therapy, only “tolerated” viewpoints that “endorsed same-sex behavior as a moral good.” Additionally, it failed “to recommend any religious resources that adopt a traditional or conservative approach to addressing conflicts between religious beliefs and sexual orientation.”

The lawsuit quotes a former president of the American Psychological Association, Dr. Nicholas Cummings, who has similarly said the group did not consider the viewpoints of those who support conversion therapy. He has said “hundreds” of patients he oversaw were successful in changing their sexual orientation.

Doyle said he has two offices in Northern Virginia, but works with Marylanders in their homes or at retreats. He said he sees patients who are happy with being LGBT but have other issues, and also those who are uncomfortable with their attraction to same-sex individuals. Not many clients, Doyle said, are minors.

He is represented by the Florida-based Christian group, Liberty Counsel, which has challenged conversion therapy bans elsewhere in the country. The group is opposed to abortion rights and same-sex marriage, and represented Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who refused to marry such couples. The Southern Poverty Law Center has designated it an anti-LGBT hate group.

Mark Procopio, executive director of FreeState Justice, an LGBT advocacy group, said the legislation banning conversion therapy “is based on sound medical and psychological research and expertise.”

“Existing federal case law shows that legislation like this seeking to protect minors from these harmful practices are constitutional and do not infringe on religious freedoms,” Procopio said. “No religious belief allows state-licensed practitioners to harm children under Maryland law."

Doyle’s lawsuit asks for Maryland officials to be prevented from enforcing the ban, and that it be declared unconstitutional.

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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