Bill to ban conversion therapy passes first hurdle, Christian counselors concerned

Conversion therapy. A practice Maine lawmakers are being tasked to decide whether or not should be legal in the state. The discussion comes as a result of a bill sponsored by Representative Ryan Fecteau of Biddeford. But what exactly IS conversion therapy? Here's how Representative Fecteau defines it.

"It's the practice of trying to convince someone over days weeks months and or years that they are not LGBTQ and that who they are is wrong and can be changed." he said.

If the bill becomes law, it would become illegal for licensed therapists and social workers to use this kind of practice on minors. Fecteau says this is done nowadays with talk therapy.

"It's really a psychological manipulation, I think probably if this were the 1950s and 60s we would be talking about some of the physical restraints like ice baths and electroshock therapy, those things were prominent at one time, but those sorts of methods are not whats being used at this point any longer so it really is this effort by a therapist to try to change someone and convince someone that they can change who they are," he said.

Opponents of the bill are concerned with how it would impact faith based counselors. The Christian Civic League of Maine strongly opposes the bill, calling it dangerous. Nancy Nichols has been a licensed clinical professional counselor in Aroostook County for more than 15 years. She offers Christian counseling and wrote a letter to lawmakers detailing her opposition to the bill. In the letter, she states that the ability to speak fully and openly about a client's emotional and cognitive development is the key to effective talk therapy.

"My primary concern as a counselor is I can't meet my clients' needs. If they come in and want to speak about same sex attraction, unwanted feelings regarding sexuality, I can't address it under this bill without fear of losing my license. I can't speak to them in light of their own values, all I can do is affirm the feelings they're having currently. I'm not allowed to explore past trauma, history, cognitive development, relationships with same sex parents, research has shown that children and even adults struggle with identity and gender issues and sexuality based on trauma and abuse histories, this would stifle me and prohibit me from exploring those areas as a counselor even if the client is requesting it," said Nichols.

Nichols says she has experience exploring questions of sexuality in light of faith and spirituality with her clients...and with her faith being based on a biblical worldview, that work could be deemed abusive conversion tactics.

"Over the years I've had a few people who have come to me adults and adolescents who said they were experiencing unwanted same sex attraction and it was causing severe depression and anxiety. They wanted help in how to manage and minimize and overcome those thoughts. So I meet the client where they're at and meet them in the place of their need and based on their values, try to give them options. This legislation would deny those options," she said.

Fecteau says the bill does permit unbiased talk therapy for clients to sort out the complexities of sexual orientation and gender identity.

"The bill explicitly permits therapeutic interventions that are neutral in regards to sexual orientation," he said.

Fecteau and Nichols are in disagreement about whether or not the practice of "conversion therapy" actually occurs in Maine. Fecteau says it does, Nichols says it doesn't. Nichols says next week an amendment supported by the Christian Civic league will be introduced to the Senate. This amendment would clarify the scope of the bill.

"The major definition with the Austin Amendment is it defines what conversion therapy is, which is rather ambiguous and vague in the current bill. The AA specifically targets abusive methodologies, and would incur penalties and removal of license for those types of behavior but it defines what those types of behaviors are," she said.

The conversion therapy bill as is passed in the House on Thursday, 76 to 68.