BISMARCK — A panel of North Dakota lawmakers has narrowly approved a new ethical standard barring social workers from practicing conversion therapy on clients who are LGBT or questioning their sexual orientation or gender identity.

The members of the Administrative Rules Committee voted 8-7 on Tuesday, June 8, to authorize the rule proposed by the North Dakota Board of Social Work Examiners, which oversees licensing for social workers in the state.

The new rule states that "it is an ethical violation for a social worker licensed by the board to engage in any practices or treatments that attempt to change or repair the sexual orientation or gender identity of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning individuals."

Bianca Bell, a social worker who chairs the board, said she didn't know of any licensed counselors who actively practice conversion therapy in North Dakota, but the board wanted to enact the ban as a "safeguard" for people seeking care from social workers.

Nearly 700,000 LGBT adults across the country have received some form of conversion therapy, which is known to cause higher rates of depression and attempted suicide, according to GLAAD, a pro-LGBT nonprofit group. The practice has been outlawed in a handful of states and denounced by dozens of national professional groups, including the American Psychological Association.

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The proposed ban on therapist-administered conversion therapy in North Dakota was met with opposition by several of the committee's most socially conservative members.

Rep. Dan Ruby, R-Minot, said he worries the new prohibition is limiting because it would prevent people seeking "some kind of treatment" from getting help. Bell said the rule is written so clients who are LGBT or questioning their sexual orientation or gender identity are not inhibited from seeking care.

Rep. Bernie Satrom, R-Jamestown, said he's concerned the rule would interfere with religious counseling, adding "there are some cases where people want to change."

“There are licensed counselors that are also Christians, and basically my concern in all of this is that we’re telling the Christian counselors 'you can be a licensed counselor, but you can’t practice your Christianity,'" Satrom said.

Satrom and West Fargo Republican Rep. Kim Koppelman said approving the social workers' ban on conversion therapy is outside of the committee's scope and ought to be scrutinized by the full Legislature.

Koppelman added that the rule is "one-sided" because it does not bar a licensed social worker from trying to steer a straight person toward becoming LGBT. Bell discarded that notion, saying conversion therapy is not used on heterosexual people.

North Dakota Rep. Kim Koppelman, R-West Fargo, chairs a committee during the 2019 legislative session. John Hageman / Forum News Service
North Dakota Rep. Kim Koppelman, R-West Fargo, chairs a committee during the 2019 legislative session. John Hageman / Forum News Service

Bismarck Republican Sen. Nicole Poolman pushed back on the interpretations of her fellow Republicans.

“This is within the scope of this organization, and it only applies to this organization. If the members of this committee want to send their kids to their ministers to pray the gay away, they are still welcome to do that. It has nothing to do with social work," Poolman said. “It has been proven how damaging that type of conversion therapy has been, and they just want to ensure that their members understand that it’s unethical.”

Rep. Bill Devlin, R-Finley, said he has served 20 years on the committee and it has never tried to dictate a professional board's ethical guidelines.

House Minority Leader Josh Boschee, the Legislature's only openly gay member, said he was disappointed in some of his colleagues for standing behind the "harmful" practice of conversion therapy and trying to muddy the conversation over what is a simple self-imposed rule for social workers. The Fargo Democrat said he was ultimately pleased that seven lawmakers joined him in upholding the proposed ban.

Bell said the professional board worked with stakeholders on the most recent set of rules for more than a year, and she is glad the committee decided to approve the ban on conversion therapy.

How they voted

On a motion to approve the ban on conversion therapy:

  • YES: Reps. Devlin, Boschee, Pyle, Weisz and Sens. Poolman, Klein, Heckaman and Lemm
  • NO: Reps. K. Koppelman, Marschall, Toman, D. Ruby, Satrom, Steiner and Sen. Rust
  • ABSENT: Rep. Becker