On January 23, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit announced denial of rehearing en banc in Tingley v. Ferguson, 47 F. 4th 1055 (9th Cir., September 6, 2022), in which a three judge panel, following 9th Circuit precedent in Pickup v. Brown, 740 F.3d 1208 (9th Cir. 2014), rejected a First Amendment free speech challenge to Washington’s statute prohibiting licensed health care providers from performing “sexual orientation change efforts” (informally referred to as conversion therapy) on minors. Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the anti-LGBT religious litigation group, represented Brian Tingley, a licensed Washington therapist, in challenging the law. The National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) represented Equal Rights Washington, a political group, as intervenor-defendant in the case. The announcement and attendant dissenting opinions are published at 2023 WL 353213, 2023 U.S. App. LEXIS 1632.
District Judge Robert J. Bryan granted a motion to dismiss in 2021, see 557 F.Supp.3d 1131 (W.D. Wash.), in light of the 9th Circuit precedent of Pickup. A three-judge panel of Circuit Judges Ronald Gould, Kim Lane Wardlaw and Mark J. Bennett, affirmed, restating the legal analysis of the Pickup decision, which held that the law was regulating professional conduct, only incidentally affecting speech, in an opinion by Gould joined by Wardlaw (Clinton appointees) with a concurrence by Bennett (Trump appointee).
It takes a majority of the 29 active judges of the circuit to grant en banc review by an eleven-judge panel. In announcing the denial of en banc review, the court released two dissenting opinions. Senior Circuit Judge Diarmuid O’Scannlain, a Reagan appointee who couldn’t vote on the issue, nonetheless was moved to write about why he thought the 9th Circuit had to reconsider Pickup, and his dissent was joined by Circuit Judge Sandra Ikuta (George W. Bush appointee) and Circuit Judges Ryan Nelson and Lawrence VanDyke (Trump appointees). Circuit Judge Patrick Bumatay (Trump appointee) wrote a separate dissenting opinion.
O’Scannlain’s dissent argued that Pickup was no longer good law. In NIFLA v. Becerra, 138 S. Ct. 2361 (2018), a free speech case challenging California’s law requiring clinics providing reproductive health services to advise patrons about the availability of abortion providers, the Court had rejected the proposition that “professional speech” receives less First Amendment protection than other speech, and Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the Court, specifically mentioned the Pickup decision as having erred on this point. O’Scannlain wrote that “the Supreme Court has rejected Pickup by name… And other circuits have rejected Pickup’s holding, concluding instead that therapeutic speech is – speech, entitled to some First Amendment protection.” He argued that “the panel’s defense of Pickup’s continuing viability is unconvincing. We should have granted rehearing en banc to reconsider Pickup and so to resolve this circuit split.” He also criticized the panel’s discussion of a “long tradition” of regulating professional conduct in the health care field as somehow supporting the law.
However, the panel had distinguished Pickup from NIFLA. In the California statute at issue in NIFLA, the state was not regulating “therapeutic speech,” but rather was requiring clinics to convey the government’s message about availability of services that these clinics – which were devoted to dissuading pregnant women from terminating their pregnancy – did not want to provide. Thus, it was compelled speech, in the view of the Court, and it violated the First Amendment for the government to compel the clinics to convey this message. This is distinguishable from the conversion therapy statutes, which restrict licensed therapists from providing the therapy – which incidentally involves speech, although some may go beyond speech in their therapeutic methods – but do not restrict them from discussing conversion therapy with their clients/patients, or require them to state anything in particular about it. The 3rd Circuit, evaluating New Jersey’s conversion therapy law in King v. Governor of New Jersey, 767 F.3d 216 (2014), differed from the 9th Circuit, holding that the law did raise free speech issues, but found that the state’s legislative findings support a legitimate interest to sustain the law. Otto v. City of Boca Raton, 981 F.3d 854 (11th Cir. 2020), which was subsequently denied rehearing en banc, rejected Pickup and struck down two local government bans on conversion therapy in Florida. Thus, the circuit split on the free speech issue.
Judge Bumatay wrote separately to assert that “conversion therapy is often grounded in religious faith,” and that Tingley had alleged that “his practice of conversion therapy is an outgrowth of his religious beliefs and his understanding of Christian teachings.” Bumatay developed this theme to conclude that this was actually a hybrid rights case, melding together free speech and free exercise of religion, which he insisted would require at least heightened scrutiny rather than the rationality approach taken by the panel in this case (and the panel in Pickup). He would vote to rehear the case en banc in order to incorporate this additional consideration in evaluating whether Washington State had a strong enough justification to support overriding the therapist’s religious convictions. He did concede that it is possible the court could find that the law survived heightened scrutiny depending on the strength of Washington’s case.
ADF brings cases challenging LGBTQ rights laws as part of a broad agenda to get the courts to condemn such laws, usually on religious freedom grounds. Since it is a test case litigator, a cert petition is the next likely development in this litigation. Although the panel majority strived to distinguish the NIFLA case, Justice Thomas’s dicta expressing disapproval of Pickup may stimulate the four votes on the Court necessary to grant certiorari. And the combination of free speech and free exercise suggested by Judge Bumatay is likely to appeal to the conservative majority on the current Court, which could spell the end of laws banning conversion therapy in the United States – at least to the extent that therapy is carried out solely through speech, as the plaintiff therapists have argued in challenging these laws.
Given the timing of all this, a cert petition filed in February or March could not be granted in time for a hearing to take place during the current term of the Court, but Tingley v. Ferguson may loom as a significant LGBT-related case on the Court’s October 2023 calendar.