The Supreme Court is being petitioned to consider the legitimacy of a ban on “conversion therapy” – a practice that seeks to assist individuals in altering their sexual orientation or gender identity through various means.
Brian Tingley, a licensed family counselor in Washington state, courageously challenges the state’s ban on the practice for individuals under 18, asserting that it infringes upon his rights to free speech and religious expression.
Tingley says the law unjustly restricts him from expressing his professional and religious beliefs, treating his professional license as a tool for government censorship.
Laurel Stine, chief policy officer for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, has labeled it a “dangerous practice,” expressing confidence in a favorable outcome should the Supreme Court decide to take up the challenge.
The justices, who discussed the case in a private session on Friday, may soon announce whether they will deliberate on it or permit a lower court ruling against Tingley to stand. Although the court has previously declined to hear similar challenges, thereby maintaining other state bans, those opposing the bans highlight that the Supreme Court has recently issued a decision that seems to bolster First Amendment speech protections in the workplace.
In recent years, as the Supreme Court has adopted a more conservative stance, it has shown a pronounced interest in cases related to religious freedom.
Tingley, advocating for his cause, points to a 2018 decision by the Supreme Court regarding anti-abortion pregnancy centers, which he believes should influence his case positively.
In that instance, a slim majority of the court’s conservatives determined that a California law requiring pregnancy centers to inform clients about publicly funded abortion and contraception services likely violated the First Amendment.
Tingley, represented by the religious rights group Alliance Defending Freedom, is supported by John Bursch, the group’s senior counsel, who expresses concern that governments might attempt to categorize other speech as “professional conduct” to enact widespread censorship.
Bursch told USA Today, “The government cannot censor a counselor’s speech,” arguing that “Washington’s counseling censorship law violates freedom of speech and harms counselors and their clients.”
Despite a U.S. District court in Washington dismissing Tingley’s case in 2021 and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruling against him last year, religious groups and individuals have garnered substantial victories at the Supreme Court in recent years.
These victories have broadened religious protections in the workplace, challenged anti-discrimination laws aimed at giving special rights to LGBTQ+ individuals, and paved the way for taxpayer funding for schools providing religious instruction.
In a notable case last year, the Supreme Court sided with a web designer, Lorie Smith, who sought to refuse to create websites for same-sex weddings due to her religious beliefs.
Smith, also represented by Alliance Defending Freedom, successfully contended that Colorado’s anti-discrimination law forced her to produce speech that contradicted her beliefs.
While critics say science supports the bans on “conversion therapy,” with organizations like the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association rejecting the practice, Tingley’s attorneys suggest that the decision for Smith is so strongly in his favor that the Supreme Court could decide the case without hearing arguments.