Phil Ford told a South Carolina Senate panel on Monday that in 2014 he was amid a mental health crisis.
“And there was a nurse who came into my room, and asked if she thought that I was in that position because I was gay,” testified Ford, representing South Carolina United for Justice and Equality. “No. I’m Christian, and I don’t think right of conscience dictates hurting someone else or questioning who someone else is or who they love.”
A panel of the Senate Medical Affairs Committee held its first of potentially several hearings on legislation that aims to expand the state’s “right of conscience” protections to mental health professionals and providers, who because of their religious, moral, philosophical and ethical beliefs do not want to provide or pay for specific medical procedures or medications.
The proposal — S. 811 — was filed in May by Republican state Sen. Josh Kimbrell after the city of Columbia sought to ban conversion therapy for LGBTQ minors. The therapy has largely been debunked but in some cases the courts have intervened after petitioners argued the bans override free speech.
The state House has a companion bill — H. 3518, which has not passed — filed by state Rep. Mark Willis, R-Greenville.
“It’s being called an attack against the city of Columbia or an attack against LGBT individuals, and it’s none of those things,” said Kimbrell, of Spartanburg County, who also has asked Republican state Attorney General Alan Wilson to intervene. “And I want to be very clear, that’s not what this is. What this is is a response to an attack against people for what they believe.”
“The South Carolina Senate did not fire the first shot here,” Kimbrell added.
This month, the city of Columbia in a 4-3 vote adopted a first-of-its-kind ordinance in the state that prohibits licensed and professional therapists and counselors from offering conversion therapy that seeks to change the sexual orientation of LGBTQ minors.
Known sometimes as reparative therapy or ex-gay therapy, the city’s conversion ban would prohibit treatment that attempts to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity, which can include seeking to reduce sexual or romantic attractions someone may have for the same gender. Under the ordinance, a licensed, professional therapist or mental health counselor could not offer conversion therapy services to a minor within the city’s limits. Punishment for doing so is civil, not criminal, and carries a $500 fine.
Kimbrell called the city’s ban a violation of the First Amendment and an “unAmerican principle”
It’s “pretty stunning we would allow a city or municipal government anywhere in this state to trample the First Amendment rights of our citizens,” Kimbrell said.
But Senate Minority Leader Brad Hutto, a trial attorney, said the legislation is likely to compound on insurance providers who may choose to forego covering a patient’s bill.
“They’re going to use anything they can, that’s what insurance companies do, you understand?” said Hutto, D-Orangeburg. “They do anything possible not to pay.”
With time constraints, few testified Monday for or against the legislation.
Dave Wilson, with conservative nonprofit Palmetto Family, and Tony Beam, with North Greenville University and representing the South Carolina Baptist Convention, asked senators to protect patients, parents and the professional rights of medical providers.
“In a country that values freedom and respects parental authority, this is completely unacceptable,” Beam testified of the ban.
And Vicki Ringer, with Planned Parenthood South Atlantic, said the legislation goes far beyond helping anyone, criticizing the Republican-controlled Senate’s decision to push the bill ahead of a thousand other bills in the Legislature’s off session.
“It’s taking a sledgehammer to something that happened in the city of Columbia that you object to,” Ringer said. “There are too many problems that face our country and our state with health care. We are in big trouble, and this isn’t one of the ways we solve that.”
Reporter Chris Trainor contributed to this report.