SALT LAKE CITY -- Utah Gov. Gary Herbert has issued a directive calling on a state agency to craft rules governing conversion therapy.
In response to a question by FOX 13 on the status of legislation at his monthly news conference, the governor confirmed his directive.
In a letter to Department of Commerce Director Francine Giani, he instructed the Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing to have the Psychologists Licensing Board begin drafting rules regulating the practice.
"This needs to be done in an area that should be governed by the best available science rather than left unregulated, or regulated in a manner that is colored by politics," the governor wrote. "Specifically, I want the state to ethically regulate psychological interventions for minor children regarding their sexual orientation and gender identity."
Herbert said he wanted the proposed rules available for public comment by September and it could be implemented shortly afterward.
"We don’t have to wait until next January to start this conversation. I’m starting it now," he told reporters.
Conversion therapy, defined as efforts to get someone to change their sexual orientation or gender identity, has been widely discredited. A bill was introduced in the Utah State Legislature earlier this year to a lot of fanfare in hopes of helping to address the state's high youth suicide rates, but it imploded when more conservative members of the House amended it to the point the sponsor said he could not proceed.
FOX 13 first reported earlier this year the governor's office had been engaged in talks to revive the bill and potentially pass it in a special session. But Thursday's action appears to go around the legislature, by letting DOPL regulate psychologists.
Opponents of the ban argue that not all forms of conversional therapy are abusive, while supporters have insisted that even talk therapy can do harm.
"I don’t know that everything that’s being done is abusive," Gov. Herbert told FOX 13, adding that he hoped this could bring people on all sides of the debate together.
"We have differences of opinion. Again, this kind of bumps up against parental rights, what is my right to raise my children and give them the therapy I think they need or the treatments I think are important, versus the science that tells us if that’s an opposing point of view," he said. "I don’t know. I hope they reconcile."
The governor's directive took lawmakers and LGBTQ rights groups by surprise. Many of them first heard of it when contacted by FOX 13 on Thursday.
"We are hopeful that placing the issue in the hands of licensed psychologists will result in a complete and permanent ban of the practice in Utah. The American Psychological Association has decisively condemned the practice," said Equality Utah Executive Director Troy Williams in a statement. "We see this as a promising step forward."
Merrilee Boyack, the director of Family Watch International, which opposed the bill, also put some hope in the governor's directive.
"We are quite hopeful that the Psychologist Licensing Board will establish appropriate guidelines that will prohibit unethical and physically aversive therapy while preserving effective ethical counseling for children," she said in a statement. "Children and their families have the right to access the type of counseling they feel they need when addressing such difficult, life-changing issues and to be able to talk these things through with a trusted professional."
Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, who co-sponsored the conversion therapy ban bill, told FOX 13 that he viewed the governor's directive as a positive move.
"The governor recognized last session that there was a need to act," he said.
But McCay said he still wanted to pursue legislation.
"We are working on this feverishly so we can get the right policy for the state of Utah," he said.
Read the governor's directive here: