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How A Bill Became A Rule: The Journey Of Utah's Conversion Therapy Ban

Photo of the Utah flag with a rainbow sky in the background.
Cory Dinter for KUER

Last week, Utah Governor Gary Herbert and leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints came to an agreement on banning conversion therapy for LGBT minors — an effort that stalled with Utah lawmakers earlier this year. 

This new rule will prohibit any state licensed therapist from practicing conversion therapy with minors. Meaning, they won’t be allowed to encourage a child to change their sexual orientation or gender identity in any way. Or give the child hope they can change themselves.

To make sense of how we got here, KUER’s Lee Hale spoke with legal scholar Clifford Rosky, a law professor at the University of Utah and a member of Equality Utah’s advisory council who wrote much of the language in the new rule, which he says will save lives. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Clifford Rosky: The two most recent studies have shown that attempting to change a child’s orientation or gender identity leads to suicide attempts, not just ideation but actual attempts in more than 60% of children. 

Lee Hale: The original bill banning conversion therapy didn’t survive Utah’s 2019 legislature. And the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints didn't support it, but they didn’t technically oppose it either, right? 

CR: No. The Quorum of the Twelve Apostles voted on that bill, and they unanimously decided not to oppose the bill. The spokesperson of the Church in February made very positive comments about being grateful that Equality Utah and the sponsor worked with the church to address its concerns.

LH: So who opposed it?

CR: Rep. Karianne Lisonbee, R-Clearfied, and Rep. Brady Brammer, R-Pleasant Grove, ran bills to dramatically narrow the language of conversion therapy to the point of futility — essentially a hijacking of the bill. They took the definition of conversion therapy from the bill, deleted it, and replaced it with something that was essentially meaningless and easy to avoid. 

LH: What was their concern? 

CR: They reported to us that they had been contacted by therapists who felt like our bill would prohibit them from helping patients. Basically, from our perspective, they spoke with people who are conversion therapists. Of course, they don't identify themselves as conversion therapists, but these were people [who] practice mental health therapy under a state license with the goal of changing a person's sexual orientation or gender identity.

LH: So, the bill did not survive, but in the summer, Gov. Herbert felt the need to commission a rule with the Utah Division of Occupational & Professional Licensing. In a way kind of bringing this back to life. And it was then that people saw the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints come out against that rule. What is your understanding of why they were uncomfortable with the language at that time?

CR: The rule never included specific exemptions for parents and clergy members. The previous bill did, [and] the reason is that those exemptions already existed in other parts of the laws that govern the practice of mental health therapy in Utah. I know the church thought it was very important to explicitly say that clergy members, parents and grandparents were exempt. 

LH:So even though that was maybe legally redundant, they still wanted that language as part of this rule? 

CR: I think so. 

LH: Let's talk about what happened last week. A rule has the blessing of the governor's office and the LDS church. And it sounds like that rule now mirrors the language that was in the original bill. 

CR: “Mirrors” is exactly the right word. The new rule that will be published on Dec. 15 and likely go into effect on Jan. 22 is a verbatim copy of the bill that Equality Utah introduced with Rep. Craig Hall, R-West Valley, in February.

LH: Have you noticed a cultural shift with Mormons generally with their views towards LGBT rights and conversion therapy? 

CR: I have noticed a shift ... I think particularly since about 2015 you've seen a real sea change. For the LDS Church to actually support — and the legislature to actively support — employment and housing nondiscrimination laws. To support the inclusion of LGBT issues in our public school curricula. To support a ban on hate crimes against LGBT people. And now, a ban on conversion therapy. That's just a massive transformation. 

Even today, when I talked to folks outside of the state, they're quite surprised to learn that Utah is the only Republican controlled state to have passed any of these laws. And it's not a swing state by anyone's metric.

Lee Hale began listening to KUER while he was teaching English at a Middle School in West Jordan (his one hour commute made for plenty of listening time). Inspired by what he heard he applied for the Kroc Fellowship at NPR headquarters in DC and to his surprise, he got it. Since then he has reported on topics ranging from TSA PreCheck to micro apartments in overcrowded cities to the various ways zoo animals stay cool in the summer heat. But, his primary focus has always been education and he returns to Utah to cover the same schools he was teaching in not long ago. Lee is a graduate of Brigham Young University and is also fascinated with the way religion intersects with the culture and communities of the Beehive State. He hopes to tell stories that accurately reflect the beliefs that Utahns hold dear.
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