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Anchorage Assembly takes up ‘conversion therapy’ ban as local, national religious leaders protest

Anchorage Assembly meeting on Monday, July 27, 2020. (Bill Roth / ADN)

On Tuesday, the Anchorage Assembly will open a public hearing on making illegal the practice of trying to change a minor’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

So-called conversion therapy has been widely discredited by American medical, psychological and psychiatric associations and is condemned by civil rights groups such as the Southern Poverty Law Center.

If passed, professional counselors who perform it on minors in Anchorage would be subject to $500 fines for each day they are in violation of the new law.

“This is a practice that — period, full stop — should not be practiced anywhere around the globe,” said Assembly Chair Felix Rivera, a sponsor of the ordinance. “For me, this is my moral and ethical obligation to put this forward, so that we could end this practice in Anchorage.”

The proposed ordinance has caught the attention of some religious leaders and groups locally and nationally, as well as the attention of a Facebook group, Save Anchorage, which originally grew as the Assembly was considering a proposal to purchase several buildings for homeless and treatment services.

Organizers in that group are holding a protest against the ordinance prior to the meeting.

The Alaska Family Council and the Anchorage Baptist Temple oppose the ordinance, saying it infringes on religious freedom, parental rights and freedom of speech.

“This ordinance goes well beyond methods of care and tells people what goals, beliefs and outcomes are permissible,” the Alaska Family Council said in a Facebook post.

Rivera is sponsoring the ordinance with Assembly members Austin Quinn-Davidson and Chris Constant. All three are gay.

Mathew Shurka is the co-founder of Born Perfect, a group that advocates for the ban of so-called conversion therapy nationwide. He himself went through it as an adolescent. Shurka said the days of physical abuse in performing conversion therapy are almost entirely gone.

The practice consists of talk therapy, he said, where a licensed professional works to convince a child they are attracted to someone of the same sex because of a mental illness or due to trauma. It can have lasting effects on the patient, he said.

“The biggest issue is shame, self-harm and suicide,” Shurka said.

Shurka said counselors who engage in conversion therapy are also taking advantage of parents, paying for something they think will help their child.

“There’s a lot of money. Conversion therapy is an industry,” he said.

At least 20 states and 70 cities have banned conversion therapy, including Utah in January. The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to hear cases challenging anti-conversion therapy laws in California and New Jersey.

A study from UCLA’s School of Law found that 698,000 adults in the U.S. have gone through conversion therapy, about half as minors.

Originally, the sponsors were not aware of the practice existing in Anchorage, but knew of it taking place elsewhere in the state. The goal was to shed light on the practice. The ordinance gained attention from national groups on both sides, including The Trevor Project and the Family Research Council, which plan to testify.

Rivera said the Assembly also got an email from a religious organization, Wellspring Ministries, concerned that the ban would make illegal a form of therapy they provide. Rivera said he doesn’t know how common the practice actually is in Anchorage.

“I think it has come to light that this is something that actually does happen in Anchorage,” he said. “The folks that do practice this kind of therapy don’t necessarily broadcast it out for everyone to see.”

In the email, Wellspring Ministries founder Art Mathias argued against the proposed ordinance.

Mathias said he and his staff serve about 80 people per week, most dealing with some sort of trauma. Over the years, they have done work with thousands of people in relation to their sexual identity.

In such clients, they have found a common denominator, Mathias wrote.

“Without exception every person has been abused either emotionally, physically or sexually,” he said.

Shurka said that way of thinking, that attraction to the same sex is a side-effect of trauma, or a mental illness, is common among such therapists. They tell children that once they work through past trauma, they will become straight.

“We want to protect families from being misinformed,” Shurka said.

Mathias also said in the email that he does not know if the proposed ordinance would ban a form of therapy practiced at Wellspring.

In an email newsletter, Mathias argues against the proposed ordinance and instead suggests one that bans the use of hormones for minors wanting to transition genders, among other things.

Mathias and Wellspring did not respond to calls and an email seeking comment Monday.

The public hearing was originally supposed to be about a month ago, but was continued. Rivera said the Assembly has received 200 to 300 pieces of testimony via email, and about 35 people have signed up to give testimony via phone at the hearing. If the body is not able to take all the testimony Tuesday night, it will continue the hearing, and a possible vote on the ordinance, to Wednesday.

Rivera said the Assembly only has jurisdiction within the municipality, but sometimes the state follows policy set in its largest city.

He would like to see a statewide ban, he said.

“That’s in the hands of the legislators,” Rivera said.

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