The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

Conversion therapy bans become conservative target in Iowa

LGBTQ+ rights are being targeted at a local level after Waterloo city officials overturned a ban on conversion therapy.
Cody Blissett
A pride flag is seen during the 2023 Pride Parade & Festival in downtown Iowa City on Saturday, June 17, 2023.

Anti-LGBTQ+ movements in Iowa have made their way to local governments after the Waterloo City Council overturned its three-month-old conversion therapy ban.

The conversion therapy ban, passed by the city council on May 16 and repealed on Aug. 21, prohibited the practice of any intervention “that attempts to change an individual’s sexual orientation or sexual behaviors.”

The overturn of the ban followed a threat of litigation in a letter from Liberty Counsel, a Florida-based religious liberty organization that stands against LGBTQ+ rights.

There are two remaining conversion therapy bans in the state — one in the unincorporated areas of Linn County, and the other in Davenport, Iowa.  

The politics of conversion therapy bans

Mack Shelley, Iowa State University political science professor, said attacks on LGBTQ+ rights are nothing new, but the overturn of the ban exposes a weak spot in local governments. 

“It’s turning out to be an area of sensitivity that local politics tend to be swayed fairly easily by heavy handed outside pressure,” Shelley said. “And in Iowa, the local governments don’t really have the color of state law on their side.”

The case in Waterloo shows that conservative groups are pushing against bans by exercising their right to free speech, Shelley said. 

Justin Holmes, associate professor of political science at the University of Northern Iowa and Waterloo resident, said it’s common for national groups to play a role in local politics, but Liberty Counsel threatening a lawsuit was a little bit different. 

“People get upset thinking ‘Why is this outside group trying to tell us what to do?’ especially when they’re out of the state,” he said. “It is not a great gauge of what people in town necessarily think. I think it’s almost entirely the lawsuit, especially to overturn it that quickly.”

Holmes said the city council’s response may represent statewide pressures to limit LGBTQ+ rights. 

“It’s a possibility that this gets on the radar of the state government, at which point, the state government would choose to ban the bans,” Holmes said. “When it’s state versus cities, generally states have a pretty wide latitude in terms of preempting local stuff.”

Liberty Counsel’s response

Mat Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel, told The Daily Iowan that the counsel got a call from a city counselor who was concerned. 

 “We looked at the law and the facts and we took appropriate action,” Staver said. 

Liberty Counsel does not recognize the term “conversion therapy,” and calls it “counseling.” 

Conversion therapy, or reparative therapy, is recognized as sexual orientation and gender identity change efforts, according to the American Medical Association. 

“Clients have the right to self-autonomy in the counseling setting to select the counselor of their choice and to set the objective they want to achieve from the counseling relationship,” Staver said. “The government has no business interfering in the counseling relationship and imposing its own viewpoint on clients and on counselors.”

Studies show conversion therapy is linked to depression, anxiety, lowered self-esteem, and more, according to the American Medical Association. 

The Liberty Counsel has litigated cases across the U.S. since 1989, including high-profile cases at the U.S. Supreme Court. When asked why Liberty Council threatened to litigate the Waterloo City Council, Staver said all levels of government need to be held accountable. 

 “We were prepared to bring a federal lawsuit against the city if they did not repeal this ordinance,” Staver said. 

What’s next for Iowans?

As for now, the conversion therapy bans in Davenport and Linn County are staying put. 

“We have not yet sent letters to other places in Iowa, but that doesn’t mean we will not be sending them,” Staver said. “We’ll be looking into those situations, and we may be contacted by other people that come aware of these laws.”

Linn County supervisor Ben Rogers said enacting the ban was a “no-brainer” for him. 

“Several LGBTQ+ individuals and groups brought [conversion therapy] to the supervisors’ attention,” he said. “We felt it’s not only important to have an enforcement mechanism on the books, but also as a symbol. This type of therapy is not therapy, it’s coercion and it’s dangerous.”

When Rogers heard about Waterloo’s overturn of the ban, he felt confused and disappointed. 

“If you pass an ordinance like this, you should stand behind it,” Rogers said. “If [Liberty Counsel] wanted to litigate it, then we’ll litigate it on the merits, and what is allowed by law.”

Rogers said it is not uncommon for the Board of Supervisors to get a threat of lawsuits, and it’s the role of the board to litigate to the best of its abilities. 

“Even though we don’t believe there are conversion therapists in the rural unincorporated areas, we’re going to make sure that if there is someone doing it, that it violates our ordinance and there’s fines and penalties.”

More to Discover
About the Contributors
Grace Katzer
Grace Katzer, Politics Reporter
Grace Katzer is a second-year student at the University of Iowa majoring in Journalism and Mass Communications, Political Science, and a writing certificate. Previous to her position as a politics reporter, she has been a higher education news reporter at The Daily Iowan and interned with the Spencer Daily Reporter as a news reporter and Iowa Starting Line as a news media reporter.
Cody Blissett
Cody Blissett, Visuals Editor
Cody Blissett is a visual editor at The Daily Iowan. He is a third year student at the University of Iowa studying cinema and screenwriting. This is his first year working for The Daily Iowan.