California Legislator Shelves Bill to Ban Paid ‘Gay Conversion Therapy’

The author of a high-profile measure to curb paid “conversion therapy,” which purports to change a person’s sexual orientation, said he is shelving his bill Friday in hopes of finding consensus with religious communities that vigorously opposed the proposal.

The bill by Assemblyman Evan Low (D-Campbell), which would have designated paid “conversion therapy” services as a fraudulent business practice under the state’s consumer protection law, easily cleared prior legislative hurdles thanks to large Democratic majorities in both chambers, as well as a handful of Republican votes.

But after religious groups assailed the proposal, calling it a threat to their right to practice their faith, Low went on a listening tour to meet with clergy across the state. Low ultimately decided to pull Assembly Bill 2943 before final approval in the Assembly, he said.

“I believe we are on the side of the angels on this issue,” Low said. “Having said that, in order to get it right, why wouldn’t we want to engage in meaningful, thoughtful, transformational relationships and conversations?”

The measure set off an unusually personal debate in the Capitol. Low, who is gay and is chairman of the legislative LGBTQ caucus, spoke emotionally about how he had considered the practice as a teen, closeted and wishing he were straight.

“There’s nothing wrong with me,” he said in an April speech on the Assembly floor. “There’s nothing that needs to be changed.”

“Conversion therapy,” also known as “reparative” or “reorientation therapy,” is opposed by medical groups including the American College of Physicians and the American Psychological Assn., which cite a lack of evidence of the practice’s efficacy and potential harm to a patient’s mental health. California banned the practice for minors in 2012. Thirteen other states and the District of Columbia also prohibit it for minors.

Low’s measure would have expanded that ban by designating the sale of services to change someone’s sexual orientation a “deceptive business practice,” opening counselors and others who perform them to lawsuits.

The bill was staunchly opposed by practitioners and adherents of “conversion therapy,” who argued it deprived adults of the choice to pursue such a practreatment. Others said the measure infringed on religious practices and could even be used to ban the Bible or other printed materials. The bill was amended to clarify that only services, not goods, would be subject to the law.

Still, faith leaders considered the bill’s language to be overly broad, sparking fears that pastors or church counselors could be subject to lawsuits if they ministered to people grappling with their sexuality.

“If I pray with this person, is that going to come back on this church?” said Kevin Mannoia, chaplain at Azusa Pacific University, an evangelical Christian college in Azusa.

In the face of intense pushback, Low said he was inspired to meet with religious leaders, including Mannoia, to hear their concerns. He was struck by how many pastors told him they did not personally support “conversion therapy,” but had fears of the bill’s broader implications.

In an op-ed in the Orange County Register this week, Mannoia stated that position publicly, stating that “reparative therapy is without evidence as to its efficacy and is inconsistent with Christian living.”

“The breadth of the language in AB2943 will limit the ability of California’s pastors to engage fully with the real struggles of their people,” he wrote. “Mr. Low has said that is genuinely not his intent. I am hopeful that he and the LGBTQ Caucus may still collaborate with churches and institutions to preserve their freedom of ministry while at the same time protecting LGBTQ people from harm.”

That declaration, Low said, “demonstrated good faith.”

“Maybe there’s something here,” Low said. “Could this be an opportunity for transformational change, in which you can get outside of the typical culture wars and come together and work with them to craft language that they might be able to support?”

Low acknowledged his decision was unconventional, when he almost certainly had the votes to win final approval.

“Some would say this is crazy,” he said. “Why would you pause when you don’t need to, when you’re in the driver’s seat?”

Low said he had no signs of opposition from Gov. Jerry Brown. Neither did Rick Zbur, executive director of Equality California, the LGBTQ advocacy group that co-sponsored the bill, who expressed confidence that Brown — whom he called “the most pro-LGBTQ governor in the state’s history” — would sign it. Brown’s office said it does not comment on pending legislation.

Zbur said he believed the bill clearly would not ban the Bible or otherwise impede religious practice, as opponents had feared.

Still, he said additional time would let them “tinker with the bill to make very clear that these false assertions the other side is making are not accurate.”

Mannoia, who once served as president of the National Assn. of Evangelicals, said the bill’s setback left him both pleased and “burdened,” knowing the heat Low may face from his allies. But he said he felt confident faith leaders and LGBTQ rights advocates could thread the needle on this issue in future legislating attempts.

“Trust can be built,” Mannoia said.