Utah has become the 19th U.S. state to ban conversion therapy aimed at changing sexual orientation or gender identity in lesbian, gay, transsexual, bisexual, and queer children.

The ban in the Republican-dominated state, which took effect on Wednesday, exempts members of the clergy, lay pastors, and spiritual counselors not licensed by the state from the ban.

Despite those limits, “this is still a big victory in a very conservative state,” said Mathew Shurka, 31, of Long Island, New York.

He describes himself as a “survivor” of such therapy. He is co-founder of Born Perfect, a nonprofit group pushing for conversion therapy bans across the United States.

Conversion therapy involves a variety of psychological and spiritual practices aimed at changing sexual orientation and gender identity in the belief that homosexuality and transgender identity are mental illnesses. 

The American Psychological Association has called the treatment harmful to young people. The American Medical Association has said that conversion therapy does not work and can trigger depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and suicide attempts.

Virginia’s state senate approved a ban on Tuesday. The bill has been sent to the Democratic-controlled House of Delegates, where it is expected to pass, said Shannon Minter, a San Francisco gay activist working with Born Perfect

In Utah, the ban takes the form of a regulation. Craig Hall, a Republican state representative, championed legislation that would have banned the therapy, but it failed to pass last year. 

He credited support from the influential Mormon Church, to which 62 percent of Utah’s 3.1 million residents belong, for the governor’s decision to enact the new regulation. The church opposes same-sex marriage, and its doctrine teaches that same-sex relationships are sinful.

Leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Mormon Church’s formal name, had previously opposed the legislation because it did not explicitly exempt clergy.

“We worked very closely with them on the (new) language,” Hall said.

“The administrative rule has the same effect as law, and it governs all licensed therapists and doctors,” he said. 

A church representative did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Hall noted that the state does not license pastors and ministers. 

Utah Governor Gary Herbert, a Republican, had no comment on the issue on Wednesday, said spokeswoman Brook Scheffler.

In a press release in November, Herbert said the rule change was needed “to end the harmful practice of conversion therapy on minors.”

“The stories of youth who have endured these so-called therapies are heart-rending, and I’m grateful that we have found a way forward that will ban conversion therapy forever in our state,” he said.

Troy Williams, executive director of the activist group Equality Utah, said that while the rule does not affect unlicensed counselors, he hopes it sends a message.

“There are a lot of therapists and life coaches still out there who run these camps. They’re dangerous,” Williams said. “But hopefully with Utah taking a strong stand, this will get the word out.”

—Reuters

By Rich McKay