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Wisconsin Republicans move to protect conversion therapy

By TODD RICHMOND
Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin therapists, counselors and social workers could continue to attempt to change the sexual orientation of gay or transgender people under a bill Republican legislators are poised to take up Tuesday.

The bill would block a proposed state Department of Safety and Professional Standards rule prohibiting so-called conversion therapy.

In another bill expected to draw attention as the Legislature returns on Tuesday, Republicans will seek to block a Department of Natural Resources rule designed to fight pollution from PFAS, the so-called “forever” chemicals that have entered the environment through such commercial products as Teflon and firefighting foam.

LGBTQ advocates maintain conversion therapy is confusing and harmful, especially to children who are struggling with their sexuality. A 1993 report from the American Academy of Pediatrics concluded that therapy aimed at changing sexual orientation can provoke guilt and anxiety with little chance of success. At least 20 states have adopted laws or regulations banning such therapy on minors, according to Human Rights Campaign. Wisconsin is not one of them.

The Marriage and Family Therapy, Professional Counseling, and Social Work Examining Board within the DSPS developed an administrative rule last year updating conduct standards for marriage and family therapists, counselors and social workers. A provision in the rule would prohibit conversion therapy; That sparked an objection from the Legislature’s rules committee in June.

The committee introduced a bill in January to block the rule from taking effect. The Assembly and Senate were both scheduled to take up the measure Tuesday.

Mike Mikalsen, an aide to Sen. Steve Nass, co-chairman of the rules committee, said the bill isn’t about the merits of conversion therapy. He said the DSPS therapy board lacked the authority to ban conversion therapy because the Legislature hasn’t prohibited it in statute.

“(The committee) was not dealing with the pluses and minuses of conversion therapy,” Mikalsen said. “The issue is until the Legislature adds that as a prohibited practice (in statute), someone should not lose their license for doing that.”

The National Association of Social Workers’ Wisconsin chapter and American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy have registered against the bill. No organizations have registered in favor.

Amanda Anderson, chairwoman of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, said the organization believes conversion therapy tells people they have no right to be homosexual and the therapy examining board should decide what practices are allowed, not legislators.

“We want the professionals setting the standards for professionals,” Anderson said.

DSPS spokeswoman Jennifer Garrett echoed Anderson, saying policy decisions should be left to the examining board.

“It is appropriate for them to draw on their expertise and insight to make decisions about safe, responsible and ethical practice,” she said.

Both the Senate and Assembly are set to take up the bill on PFAS pollution.

PFAS are human-made chemicals that research suggests can cause health problems. The chemicals have been used for decades in a range of products, including firefighting foam and stain-resistant sprays.

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers signed a bill in February 2020 that banned the use of firefighting foam except in emergencies and during testing at facilities with DNR-approved containment and disposal protocols. The DNR’s policy board in October approved a rule implementing the requirements. Under the rule, foam testing facilities must treat foam with incineration, carbon filtration or a custom system approved by the DNR. Such facilities can’t discharge water with detectable PFAS levels.

Business groups complained the DNR lacks the authority to limit PFAS in wastewater and its standards weren’t based on science. The department countered that the standards are needed to gauge if treatment is effective.

The rules committee introduced a bill in January that would prohibit the DNR from drafting any rules that apply to materials contaminated with PFAS, defines treatment as removal or destruction of a contaminant or establishes numerical treatment standards for PFAS stemming from firefighting foam.

DNR spokeswoman Sarah Hoye declined comment.

Environmental advocacy group Clean Wisconsin, the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin and Midwest Environmental Advocates have all registered against the bill. No groups have registered in favor.

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