New Jersey Lawmakers Move to Tackle Conversion Therapy

Senate President Steve Sweeney said he hopes Governor Chris Christie, who vetoed marriage equality legislation, will support the ban on therapy that seeks to “change” the sexual orientation of minors.

BY Julie Bolcer

December 17 2012 10:43 AM ET UPDATED: December 17 2012 1:58 PM ET

Steve Sweeney (left) and Chris Christie

New Jersey could become the second state after California to ban the use of highly controversial conversion therapy for minors if lawmakers pass and Governor Chris Christie signs pending legislation. 

Senate President Steve Sweeney, a sponsor of the measure, said the idea for the ban arose when he heard testimony about the therapy during the debate on the marriage equality bill and “almost fell off my seat.” He said the practice reminded him of “something out of the 1950s,” where he drew a comparison to “bomb shelters and shock therapy” in a telephone interview with The Advocate on Friday.

“It’s something that I can’t believe still exists,” he said. “We’re not going to let it exist in New Jersey.”

The bill was scheduled to receive its first hearing Monday afternoon in the Senate’s Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee, but the proceedings have been postponed to a later date.

Conversion therapy, also known as “reparative” therapy, has been denounced by professional groups including the American Psychological Association, which warn it can increase the likelihood of depression and suicide. The proposed legislation in New Jersey would prohibit psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, and other counseling professionals from using the practice on patients under 18 years old.

Similar legislation passed in California this year and is due to take effect next month, but the constitutionality of the measure is being challenged in court. One federal judge in Sacramento issued a preliminary injunction this month barring the application of the law to three plaintiffs on free speech grounds, but Sweeney said he is undeterred by the possibility of lawsuits.

“Bring it on,” he said. “This isn’t about free speech. This is about actually trying to brainwash someone that they’re somebody that they’re not.”

New Jersey is also the site of a high-profile lawsuit filed by four gay men and two mothers against Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing (JONAH) last month in Superior Court of New Jersey Hudson County. That case, which claims the group defrauded the former patients and subjected them to “humiliating” treatment, is not connected to the pending legislation.

Sweeney said that while he expects “some resisting” on the conversion therapy bill, he feels confident it will “move pretty quickly” through the Democratic-controlled legislature. The key question is whether Christie, the Republican governor, will sign the bill. As of Friday afternoon, Sweeney said the two men had not discussed the measure.

“The governor likes to play that he’s a conservative, a staunch conservative,” he said. “I would hope that he wouldn’t do that. You have young people, their civil rights are being violated by trying to force them into being someone that they’re not.”

Governor Christie’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Earlier this year, Christie vetoed marriage equality legislation championed by Sweeney and insisted voters should be allowed to decide the issue in a referendum. Legislative leaders and advocacy groups oppose the idea of a public vote, even after the success of marriage equality referendums in Maine, Maryland and Washington last month.

“I’m very happy to hear that referendums passed in the three states but I really am troubled that civil rights has to be put on the ballot,” said Sweeney. “I just don’t believe in it and I think we have to just work hard to override his veto.”

The current legislative session ends in January 2014, and with no indication the governor has reversed course, Sweeney said advocates are working to secure the two-thirds majority in the legislature needed to override the veto. As state elections loom in 2013, Republican lawmakers could be threatened with primary challenges to change their votes, or Christie could fail to win reelection, a prospect that Sweeney believes in despite the governor’s record-high 72% approval rating.

“It is a Democratic state and I don’t care how high his poll numbers are now, they won’t be there when we get to November,” he said. “We can win this election and we would be able to pass it.”

In the meantime, the Senate president acknowledged that measures such as the conversion therapy ban keep the conversation alive.

“The point is, we’re not going away,” he said. “We’re going to stand up and we’re going to fight for everyone’s rights.”

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