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Originally published Friday, November 30, 2012 at 9:27 PM

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Ban on gay-change therapy faces first legal test

The law states that mental-health professionals who use "sexual-orientation change efforts" on clients younger than 18 would be engaging in unprofessional conduct and subject to discipline by state licensing boards.

The Associated Press

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. — A first-of-its-kind California law prohibiting licensed psychotherapists from counseling gay minors on how to become heterosexual faced its first legal test Friday as lawyers for those who support "reparative therapy" asked a federal judge to block the ban.

U.S. District Judge Kimberly Mueller in Sacramento held a hearing on whether the law violates the First Amendment and should be kept from taking effect as scheduled Jan. 1.

Four counselors and two sets of parents who say their teenage sons have been helped by psychological efforts to change their sexual orientations are suing to overturn the law.

Their lawyer, Mathew Staver, asked Mueller to keep it on hold while the lawsuit proceeds, saying the ban would force young people who do not want to be gay to turn to unlicensed counselors.

"What you ultimately have is a doctor-patient relationship that is being interfered with in a very dramatic manner," Staver said. "If (lawmakers) really think this kind of therapy causes harm, why would they want to push them toward unlicensed practitioners?" he said.

Lawyers for the state say the ban is appropriate because it seeks to protect young people from a practice that supposes an individual's sexual orientation should be changed instead of regarding homosexuality as a healthy part of the human experience.

"All our state has done is what is in its power and duty to do, which is to ban a course of professional conduct that does not work, has been scientifically discredited and renounced by every mainstream mental-health association," Deputy Attorney General Alexandra Gordon told the judge.

The families involved in the case are being referred to with pseudonyms to protect their privacy. They were not in court Friday.

The law, which was passed by the California Legislature and signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in October, states that mental-health professionals such as psychologists, social workers, family counselors or psychiatrists who use "sexual-orientation change efforts" on clients younger than 18 would be engaging in unprofessional conduct and subject to discipline by state licensing boards.

The use of aversion techniques, such as electric shock or nausea-inducing drugs, to combat homosexual desires has largely disappeared. But during the last three decades, some psychologists have refined a theory of "reparative therapy," which ties homosexual desires to emotional wounds in early childhood and, in some cases, to early sexual abuse.

Mueller spent much of the hearing asking the lawyers to clarify whether the activity targeted by the law constitutes a definable set of actions that are within the state's power to regulate or an unconstitutional limit on free speech.

Staver argued that the statute is so broad that it would prevent counselors from even referring clients to out-of-state practitioners or making any statements supporting "a client's wish and self-determination to reduce same-sex attraction."

Gordon disputed his claim. She said the law was narrowly tailored to prohibit only a proscribed course of therapy and would not keep mental-health practitioners from expressing their views on homosexuality.

Mueller said she intends to issue a written ruling next week.

A second lawsuit making similar claims and filed on behalf of three Southern California therapists has a hearing before a different federal judge in Sacramento scheduled for Monday.

Material from The New York Times is included in this report.

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