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Liberty Counsel Revives Assault on New Jersey Conversion Therapy Ban

Posted on: February 12th, 2019 by Art Leonard No Comments

Usually the U.S. Supreme Court’s refusal to review a lower court decision puts an end to the case, but Liberty Counsel, a right-wing religious group that represents psychologists in New Jersey who want to provide conversion therapy to “change” people from gay to straight, has seized upon an opening created by a U.S. Supreme Court decision from last June to revive their constitutional attack on New Jersey’s law prohibiting licensed professional counselors from providing such therapy to minors.  On February 11, the organization petitioned the Supreme Court to effectively reopen the case.  King v. Governor of New Jersey & Garden State Equality.

Governor Chris Christie signed the measure into law on August 19, 2013.  Liberty Counsel promptly filed suit on behalf of two psychologists and their patients, as well as the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), and the American Association of Christian Counselors, claiming that the measure violated the constitutional rights of plaintiffs.

U.S. District Judge Freda L. Wolfson granted the state’s motion for summary judgment, finding no constitutional violation (see 981 F. Supp. 2d 296), and the plaintiffs fared no better before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, based in Newark, which upheld Judge Wolfson’s ruling on September 11, 2014 (see 767 F. 3d 216).

Wolfson found the measure to be a regulation of professional conduct, only incidentally affecting speech.  As such, she held that the challenge should be rejected as long as the legislature had a rational basis for enacting the law.  She found that the legislative record about the inefficacy and harm of such therapy was sufficient to meet the test.

On appeal, the three-judge panel disagreed with Judge Wolfson to the extent of finding that the ban as applied to “talk therapy” is a content-based regulation of speech, not just a regulation of conduct with an incidental effect on speech.  But the appeals court unanimously rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that the statute was consequently subject to the strict scrutiny test, under which it would be presumed to be unconstitutional unless New Jersey could prove that it was narrowly tailored to achieve a compelling state interest.

Instead, wrote Circuit Judge D. Brooks Smith for the panel, the speech involved in providing conversion therapy is “professional speech,” subject to state regulation.  As such, the court ruled, the state could prevail under the less demanding “heightened scrutiny” test by showing that the ban substantially advanced an important state interest, and that the legislative record was sufficient to uphold the law.

Liberty Counsel petitioned the Supreme Court for review.  That petition was denied on May 4, 2015 (see 135 S. Ct. 2048).  The Supreme Court also denied a petition to review a similar decision by the San Francisco-based 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in a case brought by, among others, Dr. David Pickup, in which that court rejected a similar challenge to California’s ban on conversion therapy.  (Dr. Pickup is also a plaintiff in the case challenging a conversion therapy ban in Tampa, Florida, about which we blogged earlier.)  Judge Wolfson relied on the 9th Circuit’s ruling in finding that conversion therapy statutes can be upheld as within the traditional state power to regulate the conduct of licensed professionals.

More than a dozen jurisdictions have since passed such bans, and attempts to challenge them in the courts have similarly been unsuccessful.  But the Supreme Court may have upset this trend by its ruling on June 26, 2018, in National Institute of Family and Life Advocates (NIFLA) v. Becerra, 138 S. Ct. 2361.  NIFLA challenged a California law that required licensed pregnancy-related clinics to inform their clients about the availability of publicly-funded family-planning services, including contraception and abortions, and non-licensed facilities to provide notices stating that they were not licensed by the state.  The Supreme Court agreed with NIFLA that the statute violated the 1st Amendment protection for freedom of speech by compelling the plaintiffs to speak the government’s message.

In defending the statute, California relied on the conversion therapy decisions from the 3rd and 9th Circuits.  This provoked Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the 5-4 majority, to reject the idea that “professional speech” in the context of regulated, licensed professions was entitled to any lesser constitutional protection than other speech.  After summarizing these and other cases, Thomas wrote: “But this Court has not recognized ‘professional speech’ as a separate category of speech.  Speech is not unprotected merely because it is uttered by ‘professionals.’  This court has ‘been reluctant to mark of new categories of speech for diminished constitutional protection.’”

Thomas went on to write that there were only two circumstances in which the Supreme Court had provided lesser protection to “professional speech”: “First, our precedents have applied more deferential review to some laws that require professionals to disclose factual, noncontroversial information in their ‘commercial speech.’  Second, under our precedents, States may regulate professional conduct, even though that conduct incidentally involves speech.”

Thus, at least by implication, a majority of the Supreme Court ruled last June that states passing conversion therapy bans will have to meet the demanding strict scrutiny test when they are challenged under the 1st Amendment.  Unless, of course, they can show that this is really a regulation of professional conduct with incidental effect on speech, an approach that worked in the 9th Circuit.  Although Thomas’s comments in NIFLA suggest this may be a difficult task, it is not necessarily impossible.

Reacting to the Supreme Court’s NIFLA ruling, Liberty Counsel jumped into action to try to revive its challenge to the New Jersey law.  First, it filed a Motion with the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals, demanding that it recall the Mandate it had issued to the District Court in 2014 to dismiss the challenge to the statute.  Liberty Counsel argued that the Supreme Court’s ruling had “abrogated” the 3rd Circuit’s decision, thus the 3rd Circuit should acknowledge that its 2014 ruling was erroneous and correct the situation by “recalling” its Mandate.  Although Liberty Counsel does not explicitly state what would come next, presumably this would mean reversing the District Court’s grant of summary judgment to the state and resetting the case for argument under the strict scrutiny test.  The 3rd Circuit denied this Motion without a hearing or a written opinion.

Undaunted, Liberty Counsel then sought rehearing en banc (by the full 3rd Circuit bench), which was also denied, on November 13, 2018.

Liberty Counsel petitioned the Supreme Court on February 11, arguing that the 3rd Circuit “abused its discretion” by refusing to take action based on the Supreme Court’s “abrogation” of the 3rd Circuit’s prior opinion.  Liberty Counsel cites numerous cases in which it claims federal courts of appeals have “recalled” their mandates from lower courts after a Supreme Court decision in a similar case has rejected the reasoning underlying their earlier decision.  Liberty Counsel argues that the current situation is particularly stark because the Supreme Court has not only rejected the reasoning of the earlier case, but has cited and quoted from the earlier decision while doing so.

On the other hand, Justice Thomas did not use the term “abrogate” and his opinion in NIFLA recognizes that there may be circumstances in which state regulation of professional speech may be constitutional.  The 9th Circuit’s reasoning in the Pickup case, focused on the regulation of professional conduct rather than speech, may be such an instance, and the 3rd Circuit’s case could be reconsidered under such a standard.  In this case, Liberty Counsel may be following the lead of West Publishing Company, which operates the Westlaw legal research system.  If one finds the 3rd Circuit’s decision in Westlaw, one sees, in bold red above the citation of the case, the phrase “Abrogated by National Institute of Family and Life Advocates v. Becerra, U.S., June 26, 2018” and the characterization “Severe Negative Treatment.”

Liberty Counsel’s petition, a bit disingenuously, assumes this means that the New Jersey law is unconstitutional, but all it really means is that the 3rd Circuit applied too lenient a standard in ruling on the case and should have applied the strict scrutiny test to be in line with the Supreme Court ruling in NIFLA.

In its argument to the Supreme Court, Liberty Counsel contends that failing to grant the petition and to require the 3rd Circuit to “recall” its mandate will have harmful rippling effects throughout the nation.  It points to the steady progression of new state and local laws that have been enacted in reliance on the “incorrect” decisions by the 3rd and 9th Circuits, which it asserts will “chill” the ability of conversion therapy practitioners to “offer” this “cure” to their patients.

In January, U.S. Magistrate Judge Amanda Arnold Sansone relied on the Supreme Court’s NIFLA decision in her report recommending that the U.S. District Court issue a preliminary injunction against the application of the Tampa, Florida, conversion therapy ban to practitioners who provide “talk therapy.”  The complaint filed in federal court in Brooklyn last month by Alliance Defending Freedom, challenging New York City’s ordinance, is devised to raise the same arguments.  And it is predictable that either ADF or Liberty Counsel will file suit in an attempt to block the new state law enacted last month in New York raising similar arguments.

Although Liberty Counsel couches its petition as an attempt to have the court settle a dispute among lower courts about the proper way to respond when one of their decisions is substantially undermined in its reasoning by a subsequent Supreme Court ruling in a similar case, it is at heart an attempt to relitigate the question whether conversion therapy practitioners have a 1st Amendment right to ply their trade free of government restrictions.  It is a blatant attempt to get the issue of conversion therapy back before the Supreme Court now that Trump’s appointments have solidified the conservative majority.  And, at that, it is a test of science against homophobia and transphobia.