Miami-Dade commissioners on Tuesday rejected a ban on gay-conversion therapy for minors, saying the proposed crackdown would thrust local government into a parent’s right to make decisions about a child’s mental health and address matters of sexuality within the family.
The 4 to 7 vote followed hours of public testimony, most of it from opponents of the proposed ordinance by Commissioner Sally Heyman. Supporters wanted Miami-Dade to join a list of local governments banning the discredited practice of trying to change a child’s sexual orientation, but critics saw the ordinance as so broadly worded that it could ensnare a pastor’s sermon or a parent expressing concerns about a child’s choices on sexual activity.
“In this case, my problem is with the rights of parents,” said Commissioner Rebeca Sosa, whose past votes on transgender rights and same-sex marriage brought her the endorsement of Save, a gay rights group. “If you make a decision about your children that, in the end, is wrong, that’s your responsibility … I think government has to be respectful of that right.”
Commissioners voting for the failed measure noted the broad consensus among medical groups that addressing sexual orientation as a problem to be fixed only causes harm to a child.
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“What you’re doing is telling that child you’re not accepting them as they are,” said Commissioner Audrey Edmonson.
The ordinance would have applied only to counselors operating outside of city limits in Miami-Dade, since the commission has direct authority over local regulations for the county’s “unincorporated” areas. Miami, Miami Beach and other cities have already enacted local bans on conversion therapy, and the commission vote marks a significant victory for the churches and advocacy groups fighting the restrictions across the county.
Commissioners Esteban “Steve” Bovo, Jose “Pepe” Diaz, Joe Martinez, Jean Monestime, Javier Souto and Xavier Suarez joined Sosa on the No side. Voting yes with Edmonson were Heyman, along with Bruno Barreiro and Daniella Levine Cava.
The chambers weren’t large enough to hold the dozens of people signed up to speak on the therapy ban, with an overflow area set up in the County Hall lobby to hold the overflow crowd until it was their time to address commissioners.
Justin Flippen, the vice mayor of Wilton Manors, said he suffered through gay-conversion therapy as a young man.
“Conversion therapy is so harmful and rejected,” he said, citing bans by California and other states. “Being gay is not a choice. It is not a preference. It is a part of me as much as my eye color is.”
Robert Myers, pastor at the Miami Baptist Church, labeled the proposed ordinance as declaring certain topics off-limits.
“I am against the idea that you can come into the home of a person, or a pulpit of a church, and say they are the things you cannot talk about,” he said. “I think this is a freedom issue we’re dealing with here.”
Much of the criticism focused on the original language of Heyman’s ordinance that said it applied not only to licensed counselors, but also to those without a license. With that wording, critics said the rules could be interpreted to apply to someone acting in the role of a counselor, including a youth minister or a parent. Heyman amended the ordinance to limit the rules to licensed counselors, but the change didn’t sway any votes.
“Why is this even in front of us?” asked Martinez, noting Florida already regulates counselors but has declined to restrict gay-conversion therapy. “You can’t tell me what I should tell my child, or what I can’t. You’re stepping into my house.”