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District Court Rejects Constitutional Challenge to Washington State’s Conversion Therapy Ban

Posted on: September 2nd, 2021 by Art Leonard No Comments

Senior U.S. District Judge Robert J. Bryan has dismissed constitutional challenges to Washington State’s Conversion Therapy ban (codified in Wash. Rev. Code Sections 18.130.20 and 18.130.180) brought by Brian Tingley, a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, who asserted a violation of his free speech and free exercise of religion rights, as well as alleging a violation of due process.  Tingley v. Ferguson, 2021 WL 3861657, 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 164063 (W.D. Wash., Aug. 30, 2021).  Equal Rights Washington had intervened to help named defendants, Washington Attorney General Robert W. Ferguson and others, in defending the law.  After Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) filed suit on Tingley’s behalf, it sought a preliminary injunction against enforcement of the law, while defendants filed a motion to dismiss the case.  Judge Bryan granted defendants’ dismissal motion, and denied intervenors’ dismissal motion and Tingley’s motion for preliminary injunction as moot.  Judge Bryan’s ruling sets up the case for ADF to appeal, based on its argument that 9th Circuit decisions rejecting similar challenges to California’s Conversion Therapy ban are no longer “good law” in light of the Supreme Court’s ruling in NIFLA v. Becerra, 138 S. Ct. 2361 (2018).

Tingley alleged that he has violated the Washington law by providing therapy sought by minors who were unhappy about their same-sex attractions or discomfort with their biological gender.  Although his religious beliefs underly his opinions about sexual orientation and gender identity, he does not identify as a religious counselor who would be expressly exempted under the law.  The court determined that Tingley had individual standing to bring his challenge, but not representative standing for his clients.

To cut to the quick, Judge Bryan held that the 9th Circuit’s opinions in Pickup v. Brown, 740 F.3d 1208 (9th Cir. 2014) and subsequent cases concerning the California law, are binding precedent in this case.  The essence of ADF’s free speech argument is that the Supreme Court’s rejection of a distinct category of “professional speech” subject to a lesser standard of 1st Amendment expression than other forms of speech in NIFLA v. Becerra had essentially overruled Pickup, and pressed home this point by citation to Pacific Coast Horseshoeing School, Inc. v. Kirchmeyer, 961 F.3d 1062 (9th Cir. 2020), in which that court noted in a citation that NIFLA had “abrogated” Pickup.  Not mentioned in Judge Bryan’s opinion is that Justice Clarence Thomas’s opinion for the Supreme Court in NIFLA spoke disparagingly about the treatment of “professional speech” in two conversion therapy cases, Pickup and King v. Governor of New Jersey, 767 F.3d 216 (3rd Cir. 2014), a similar ruling upholding New Jersey’s conversion therapy law.  Judge Bryan rejected this argument, finding that the basis of the Pickup ruling was a determination that the California law regulated professional conduct, the provision of a “therapy,” which incidentally involved speech, but the law was focused on the conduct, not the speech.

Bryan noted as well that the plaintiffs in Pickup and the New Jersey case had petitioned the Supreme Court after the NIFLA ruling to order the 9th and 3rd Circuits to recall their decisions concerning conversion therapy bans, but the Supreme Court rejected those petitions.  See Pickup v. Newsom, 139 S. Ct. 2622 (petition denied, May 20, 2019); King v. Murphy, 139 S. Ct. 1567 (petition denied, April 15, 2019).

Conceptualized as a regulation of licensed professional conduct, wrote Bryan, “the Washington Conversion Law is subject to rational basis review, it is rationally related to the State’s asserted interest ‘in protecting the physical and psychological well-being of minors, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth, and in protecting its minors against exposure to serious harm caused by conversion therapy.’”  Thus, the court found no violation of Tingley’s free speech rights.

On the Due Process claim, Bryan rejected Tingley’s assertion that the law was impermissibly vague, noting that the 9th Circuit had rejected this argument in Pickup regarding the similarly-worded California statute and finding that a “reasonable person” could figure out that what was outlawed was therapy intended to “alter a minor patient’s sexual orientation” or gender identity.  The 9th Circuit did not find either of those terms to be vague, finding ample definitions in dictionaries as well as the definitional provisions of the statutes.

As to the Free Exercise argument, Judge Bryan found that the 9th Circuit had rejected a similar argument in Welch v. Brown, 834 F. 3d 1041 (9th Cir. 2016), a companion case decided by the 9th Circuit together with Pickup.  The law does not target religion.  “Like in Welch,” wrote Bryan, “the object of the Conversion Law is not to infringe upon or restrict practices because of their religious motivation.  Its object is to ‘protect the physical and psychological well-being of minors. . .  The Conversion Law does not, either in practice or intent, regulate the way in which Plaintiff or anyone else practices their religion.  Instead, it ‘regulates conduct only within the confines of the counselor-client relationship,’” citing Welch.  “Plaintiff is free to express and exercise his religious beliefs; he is merely prohibited from engaging in a specific type of conduct while acting as a counselor.”

Bryan also rejected ADF’s argument that because both speech and free exercise were implicated, under a “hybrid rights” doctrine the law was subject to a higher level of judicial scrutiny.  “It is not clear that the hybrid rights exception ‘truly exists,’” he wrote, quoting the 9th Circuit’s opinion in Parents for Privacy v. Barr, 949 F. 3d 1210 (2020), but even assuming that it does, “the doctrine would compel a higher level of scrutiny for claims that implicated multiple constitutional rights, in this case free exercise and free speech.  Because the Court already established that Plaintiff’s claim does not implicate free speech, the hybrid rights exception does not apply and does not undermine the holding of Welch.”

ADF will certainly appeal this ruling to press the argument that NIFLA has “abrogated” Pickup and Welch and compels a ruling for their client on the free speech claim.  Striking down Conversion Therapy bans is a major item on ADF’s anti-LGBTQ agenda.

Intervenor Equal Rights Washington is represented by National Center for Lesbian Rights and pro bono counsel Raegen Nicole Rasnic of Skellenger Bender, PS, Seattle.  The court also received a brief on behalf of The Trevor Project, the Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and the American Association of Suicidology, identified as “Interested Partys.”

Judge Bryan was appointed to the court by President Ronald W. Reagan.