Three months after the Waterloo City Council passed a ban on conversion therapy for minors, the council reversed its decision in a 4-3 vote Monday. The controversial decision comes just days before Cedar Valley Pridefest begins.
Why did the council repeal it?
Waterloo Mayor Quentin Hart, city attorney Martin Petersen, and at least some council members alluded to “pending or threatened litigation,” as Hart put it during Monday’s city council meeting.
“We have a credible threat of litigation,” said council member John Chiles, who ultimately voted to repeal the ban. “I cannot put Ward One through litigation in which we are assured that we cannot prevail.”
Nevertheless, he noted it was an “absolutely horrible” situation. Chiles said his sister was gay “and will probably hate me for this.”
Chiles was joined by council members Dave Boesen, Ray Feuss, and Rob Nichols in voting for the repeal. Boesen was the lone “no” vote against the ordinance in May. He cited the threat of litigation both times.
“It’s out of our hands,” Boesen said. “We’re going to be forced to rescind this, and it just depends on at what cost.”
Council members Belinda Creighton-Smith, Jonathan Grieder, and Nia Wilder—Waterloo’s first openly gay council member—all voted against it.
“I understand what the city has to do, and I understand why you’re doing it. I’m just not going to do it,” Wilder said. “I’m still going to stand with the gays like I always have, just because that’s the right thing to do.”
That threat, the City revealed to Starting Line on Friday, was from Richard Mast of anti-LGBTQ Florida group Liberty Counsel, who sent a letter to the City of Waterloo on June 30 threatening costly litigation “on behalf of a client whose First Amendment rights are even now being violated by this speech ban.”
Mast demanded a response and repeal of the ordinance by Aug. 1.
“If I do not receive this response, I will conclude that the City Council is indifferent to the concerns expressed herein, and Liberty Counsel will take further action to prevent continued irreparable harm to cherished liberties,” Mast wrote.
Background on the ban
Back in May, Waterloo passed an ordinance, similar to ones passed at more than 100 municipalities across the country, to ban the widely discredited practice of conversion therapy. Those who have gone through the therapy say it can include torture and abusive tactics, including shock treatment.
“I’ve heard a lot of people talking tonight about parents’ rights, which is honestly appalling to me that we’re not also talking about children’s rights not to be subjected to harmful and pseudo-scientific conversion practices,” one young person who didn’t give their name told the council Monday night.
Damian Thompson said the short-lived ban was “a real bright spot” for LGBTQ youth amid a state trying to legislate them out of existence. Thompson is the director of external relations at Iowa Safe Schools, which advocates for LGBTQ youth.
“Why the city would work to repeal this dumbfounds me,” he said at the meeting. “There have been zero legal or legislative developments which would change the interpretation of the passage of this ordinance. The lack of transparency from the council is also a bit disturbing.”
Worried about million-dollar lawsuits
This past spring—after similar bans on conversion therapy for minors in Boca Raton and Palm Beach County, both in Florida, were struck down by the federal 11th Circuit Court of Appeals—the emboldened Liberty Counsel sued the city of Tampa for its ban on conversion therapy for minors. Worried it would also lose in court, Tampa settled with Liberty Counsel for nearly $1 million.
Appellate courts, a step below the US Supreme Court, are often the final word on such cases if the high court decides not to take it up. Iowa does not fall under the 11th Circuit’s jurisdiction, which just covers a few southern states. But Iowa’s court, the 8th Circuit, is even more conservative-leaning than the 11th, thanks to judges appointed by then-President Donald Trump.
In Mast’s letter to Waterloo, he also said Liberty Counsel won $2.125 million in attorney’s fees from the City of Boston after a Supreme Court decision, and used it as a warning without explicitly saying Liberty Counsel would sue.
“The City of Boston received a letter much like this one,” Mast wrote to Waterloo. “Had the City of Boston heeded that request, it would have save the taxpayers considerable resources.”
However, Boston wasn’t sued by Liberty Counsel for a conversion therapy ban—it was sued for refusing to fly a Christian flag outside of City Hall. Mast did not mention that distinction in his letter.
‘We shouldn’t give up just because we don’t like the odds’
Grieder, who introduced the original ban, scoffed at those worried about a lawsuit, which, he noted, hadn’t even happened yet.
“We shouldn’t give up just because we don’t like the odds,” Grieder said. “The story of what makes the United States great is that small groups have always fought for change to make the world a better place, often against innumerable odds. And I am asking us to do this thing now because it is the right thing to do.”
Thompson of Safe Schools said he also believed the ordinance was “fully legal within the concept of Home Rule,” and that the ordinance was “very much in compliance with state law.”
Aliya Rahman of Waterloo said she understood the council was worried about their “financial burden,” but wondered why they seemingly had no plan to help LGBTQ children forced into conversion therapy when the ban ends.
“I don’t understand why we haven’t already put in motion alternative, city-level measures for impacted youth, given the escalated attacks on queer and trans people in this state,” Rahman said. “This legal cost we might encounter once is not as much of a financial burden as the inequality we definitely have.”
In a statement before the vote, the Cedar Valley Pridefest board—which has put on the two-day LGBTQ festival in downtown Waterloo since 2012—posted they were “disappointed to hear this.”
“We encourage everyone to continue to be active and show up for each other, but we also understand that many threats to our rights and freedoms come from people outside of our local community,” the board wrote. “We will continue our work this weekend to bring people together to create a more united and inclusive community.”
This story was updated Aug. 25 to add details of the Liberty Counsel letter sent to the city.
by Amie Rivers
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