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Evangelical Group Sues Florida Cities to Allow Gay-Conversion Therapy

Horatio Mihet, senior litigation counsel at the Liberty Counsel. Courtesy photo

A self-described religious freedom group argued in federal court that Tampa's ban on conversion therapy, which seeks to covert participants to heterosexuals, violates First Amendment privileges.

Liberty Counsel, an Orlando-based litigation organization, is representing licensed therapists Robert Vazzo and David Pickup, and the pair's young clients, in their suit against Tampa over Ordinance 2017-47.

The ordinance, which was adopted by the city in March 2017, bans "any counseling, practice or treatment performed with the goal of changing an individual's sexual orientation or gender, including, but not limited to, efforts to change behaviors, gender identity or gender expression, or to eliminate or reduce sexual or romantic attractions or feelings towards individuals of the same gender or sex."

Under Tampa's municipal codes, violations of the ordinance could cost up to $1,000 for first offenses and $5,000 for repeat violations.

Liberty Counsel is seeking a preliminary injunction to put a stop to Tampa's enforcement of that ordinance. It commenced legal action in December 2017.

“The city of Tampa has no authority to prohibit counselors from providing counsel which their clients seek,” Mat Staver, Liberty Counsel's founder and chairman said in a press release. “The government has no business eavesdropping inside the counseling rooms, and the city has no authority to enact a local counseling regulation."

Horatio “Harry” Mihet, an attorney with Liberty Counsel, told the Daily Business Review that he expects the court to release a decision following the submission of additional post-hearing briefs in the days to come.

He called the hearing "remarkably one-sided."

Defendants "made no effort to engage with any of the evidence we put forth to show the court this ordinance was not narrowly tailored," Mihet said. "The U.S. Supreme Court decision in McCullen v. Coakley makes it clear a city such as Tampa must consider less restrictive alternatives … before it burdens protected speech."

"It seems to me like we’re still debating whether or not the speech at issue here is actually speech or conduct. That seems to be the main thrust of the defense," he added, noting the varying degrees of protection and scrutiny afforded to speech versus conduct.

"We obtained in discovery documents in which Tampa was calling conversion therapy professional speech in its internal communications.  … Everyone was in agreement this was a form of professional speech," Mihet said. He contended opposing counsel did not engage with the plaintiff's findings in court.

The organization, which is designated as an anti-LGBTQ hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, has also sued Boca Raton and Palm Beach Counties over their bans on conversion therapy.

Defense attorney Robert V. Williams, a litigator with the Tampa office of Big Law firm Burr & Forman, declined comment, citing Tampa’s policy against commenting on ongoing litigation.

Gay advocacy groups have taken note of the litigation, and at least one has stepped into the fray with a motion to intervene and become a party to the suit. Equality Florida Institute Inc. hired Tampa-based Carlton Fields Jorden Burt lawyers Brian C. Porter and Sylvia H. Walbolt, as well as attorneys with the National Center for Lesbian Rights and the Southern Poverty Law Center. Its counsel did not respond to requests for comment by press time.

 

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