AUGUSTA — A House debate over legislation to ban conversion therapy in Maine devolved Thursday into an emotional and, at times, personal display of the lingering cultural divide at the State House over sexual orientation and religion.

House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, sternly warned several speakers against “impugning the motives” of other lawmakers and even suspended debate for nearly a half hour before the chamber approved the controversial bill on a 76-68 vote.

The largely party-line vote raises doubts about the prospects for a bill that would prohibit state-licensed therapists from engaging in conversion therapy treatment that attempts to change the sexual orientation or gender identity of individuals under age 18.

“This therapy always leads to a bad outcome, and I support this bill,” said Rep. Patricia Hymanson, D-York, a neurologist.

Bill sponsor Rep. Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, shared his personal story of a trusted university administrator urging him to “see beyond your gay identity” and recommended he read a book encouraging conversion therapy to help gay or lesbian individuals become straight.

Fecteau was the leader of his campus’ LGBT organization as well as student body president at the time and had already come out to his parents yet said the message “that he needed to be fixed” from a trusted and admired person was enough to cause him severe and long-lasting depression.

“I know there are young people who are far more vulnerable than I was back then,” Fecteau said. “I want to protect them from the harm that can come from a trusted professional telling them, one way or another, that they are broken, that the core truth of who they are is wrong and even disgusting.”

As defined in the bill, L.D. 912, conversion therapy is “any practice or treatment that seeks to change an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity, including, but not limited to, any effort to change gender expression or to eliminate or reduce sexual or romantic attractions or feelings toward individuals of the same gender.”

The practice has been denounced by many national health and psychiatric organizations.

The American Medical Association, for example, said in testimony that conversion therapy is “a coercive practice that may cause long-term psychological harm, particularly to young patients” and that the underlying assumptions of the practice have no scientific or medical merit.

Fecteau’s bill would allow state licensing boards to revoke the certifications of therapists or counselors who use conversion therapy techniques. But the bill would not prohibit any “neutral” counseling or talk therapy intended to help minors struggling with issues surrounding sexual orientation or gender identity. The bill would also explicitly exempt any counseling provided by a priest, rabbi or other religious official as long as the therapy isn’t offered to minors in exchange for pay.

Nine states have enacted similar prohibitions on conversion therapy, and others are debating similar proposals this year.

Several opponents raised concerns about potential unintended consequences of frustrated young people or parents seeking wrongful retribution against counselors, who could lose their licenses as a result. Others raised concerns about parents somehow breaking the law by seeking help for a child confused about their sexual orientation.

But several of the conservative Republican lawmakers who spoke against the bill on the House floor couched their opposition in moral, religious or political terms.

Rep. Larry Lockman, an Amherst Republican well known for his hard-right views and controversial comments on social issues, predicted the bill will only “punish licensed professionals who dissent from the prevailing progressive orthodoxy” on sexual orientation and transgendered individuals.

“The bill before us today is part of a much larger campaign to shut down reality-based free speech,” said Lockman. “And not just shut it down, Madam Speaker. The left-wing progressives who are waging war on free speech in America have been so emboldened by their recent successes that they have upped the ante. Now they want to strip dissenters of their ability to make a living.”

His politically charged comments earned him several warnings from Gideon before she ordered him to speak with her privately with legislative leaders.

Rep. Roger Reed, R-Carmel, sparked angry objections from supporters when he read from a constituent letter calling the bill “extremely dangerous” and “an attempt by the LGBT community to legitimize the unnatural inclinations now approved by society over the natural inclinations as taught to us” in the Bible. As tempers rose on the House floor, a clearly frustrated Gideon halted debate and shut down the floor session for more than 25 minutes before letting Reed continue his firebrand speech about America losing it’s “moral compass” by straying from the church.

“I take real issue with bills that are put forth by this Legislature that meddle in the affairs of the American family,” Reed said. “There are some things that we should not tolerate and this is one of them.”

Opponents’ comments about religion prompted Rep. Craig Hickman, an openly gay evangelical Christian, to share his own painful experiences of the counseling he received as a young man.

“In the course of my Christian counseling, I was told all sorts of things about who I was, who I should be, or who I should not be,” said Hickman, D-Winthrop. “And it was very difficult to hear that who I was, and knew myself to be, was an abomination … I don’t want anyone in this chamber or who is listening to get it twisted: I’m a Christian and I support this bill.”

Rep. Colleen Madigan, D-Waterville, also sought to discredit claims that the bill would prevent her or other licensed therapists from offering minors therapy when it comes to sexual orientation, sexual abuse or other issues.

“This bill does not impinge on my rights to treat people in outpatient psychotherapy,” said Madigan, a licensed clinical social worker. “I have to follow the ethics of my profession and those require that I do no harm. This bill bans harmful practices.”

The bill now goes to the Republican-controlled Senate, where it will likely face tougher odds of passage. Even if it emerges from both chambers, however, Thursday’s 76-68 vote was far shy of a two-thirds majority that would be needed to overturn a veto from Gov. Paul LePage.

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at:

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