The GOP-led state rules committee on Thursday denied a state agency’s request to implement rules prohibiting the use of “conversion therapy” by licensed therapists, counselors and social workers to attempt to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
The Joint Committee for Review of Administrative Rules voted along party lines to suspend the proposed rule changes without holding a public hearing or allowing in-person testimony from the state Marriage and Family Therapy, Professional Counseling and Social Work Examining Board, which brought forth the proposal — drawing heated criticism from Democratic members.
“I think that’s a true disservice to democracy and to the citizens in this state ... 100% of the contacts that I have had are in favor of this rule,” Rep. Gary Hebl, D-Sun Prairie, said during the meeting. “It’s really amazingly disappointing, especially during pride month, that we’re looking at not protecting all individuals in this state.”
Committee co-chairman Sen. Stephen Nass, R-Whitewater, said during the meeting that a public hearing was not required and the proposal was denied on the basis that such a change would run counter to legislative intent.
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Bills proposed in the 2017-18 legislative session to prohibit conversion therapy failed to gain any traction in the GOP-led chambers.
“There’s a number of problems here that the Legislature should deal with, if they would want to, and not a department,” Nass said during Thursday’s committee meeting. “When you jump the fence on that and don’t corral the departments they can begin to willy-nilly change whatever rules.”
Nass’ office did not respond to request for comment.
The proposal would have updated state rules for marriage and family therapists, professional counselors and social workers to include provisions prohibiting discrimination while providing services based on gender, gender identity, ethnicity and biological sex.
The rule also would have prohibited practitioners “from employing or promoting any intervention or method that has the purpose of attempting to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity,” a practice known as conversion therapy.
Committee vice chairman Rep. Adam Neylon, R-Pewaukee, said he supports the prohibition of practices such as conversion therapy, but said he would vote against the proposed rule because the language was “too generic and could lead to unintended consequences for therapists simply attempting to help their patients, not manipulate them.”
Critics of conversion therapy say the practice can cause psychological harm to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth and lead to issues such as depression and substance abuse. More than a dozen national associations, including the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy and American Medical Association have denounced the practice.
“At no point were the supposed merits of conversion therapy ever even discussed by Republicans in the hearing,” Sen. Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee, said in a statement. “Instead, they hid behind bogus procedural claims, which stalled this rule at the expense of real people who remain vulnerable to predatory practices under the guise of therapy.”
The Marriage and Family Therapy, Professional Counseling and Social Work Examining Board falls under the Department of Safety and Professional Services and consists of governor-appointed members, including appointees from both former Republican Gov. Scott Walker and Democratic Gov. Tony Evers.
The original scope statement that led to the rules proposed Thursday was approved by Walker in early 2018 with the objective of making revisions “to create clarity, remove obsolete provisions and ensure the chapter is current with professional standards and practices,” according to the statement.
Larson said legislation to ban conversion therapy can be proposed again next legislative session, but added there is no guarantee it will gain any traction.
Both Milwaukee and Madison banned conversion therapy in 2018.
Friday marked the five-year anniversary of the historic U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriage.
Late rent fees
The committee also on Thursday voted along party lines to block an administrative rule to temporarily prohibit landlords from charging tenants late fees or penalties for failing to pay rent on time until August.
Democratic committee members described the provision, which was proposed by the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, as much-needed assistance for Wisconsinites struggling to make timely rent payments during the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, Republican members said DATCP didn’t have the authority to implement such a rule and raised concern that waiving penalties could discourage tenants from making timely payments and result in increased evictions.