Cities and counties in Iowa would be restricted from banning or regulating behavioral health practices such as “conversion therapy” under a proposed bill in the 2024 Legislature.
Senate File 2037, introduced by Sen. Sandy Salmon, R-Janesville, comes months after the city of Waterloo attempted to ban the practice, before repealing it under the threat of a lawsuit from a Christian organization.
“Conversion therapy” — trying to alter a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity through counseling — has been discredited by major health associations such as the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Under the bill, bans such as Waterloo’s would not be permitted. Sen. Dennis Guth, R-Klemme, argued in a subcommittee hearing that local regulations would circumvent the state’s licensing board and “undermine the rule of law.”
LGBTQ+ advocacy groups criticized the bill in comments to lawmakers, arguing that it lent credence to an inappropriate and discredited form of counseling.
“I’ve been told over and over again that we don’t need to address conversion therapy because it doesn’t happen in Iowa,” said Keenan Crow, director of policy and advocacy for One Iowa.
“It would seem that this legislation is an implicit admission that not only is it happening, but that the Legislature wants it to happen, and in fact wants to grant conversion therapists additional protections.”
Lobbyists for Iowa’s associations representing cities and counties said they were formally undecided on the bill but fundamentally opposed any attempts to preempt local authority.
And the Iowa director for the National Association of Social Workers, Denise Rathman, warned that it could have “unintended consequences” for how local governments address and implement other behavioral health programs.
Chuck Hurley, vice president of The Family Leader, argued that Waterloo’s ban had been an infringement on the First Amendment as he spoke in support of the bill, which he said would save municipalities “time and expense, and frankly some embarrassment.”
Pushing back, Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, said the legislation amounted to “consumer protection” for “quackery” and “brainwashing,” and that First Amendment protections do not apply to the practice of medicine and psychiatry, which are regulated.
“Thank goodness for Waterloo stepping up. I hope other communities will do that,” Quirmbach said, as he urged the Legislature to “step in” and ban the practice statewide.
Guth said he had “heard of a number of people” for which the practice had been effective, to which Quirmbach responded that anecdotes were not an adequate basis on which to pass the bill.
The subcommittee chair gave initial approval to the legislation after Wednesday’s hearing.
“Democrats have touted for years that government should not get between a patient and provider, and so on this bill, I agree with that sentiment,” said Sen. Jesse Green, R-Boone.
Waterloo’s city council banned “conversion therapy” in May of last year, before rolling back the ban in August after Liberty Counsel, a Florida-based Christian organization, threatened to sue the city on the basis of free speech.
The Associated Press contributed reporting.
Galen Bacharier covers politics for the Register. Reach him at email@example.com or (573) 219-7440, and follow him on Twitter @galenbacharier.