Denver Capitol building

The golden dome of the Colorado state Capitol building in Denver.

A Colorado House committee voted Wednesday to approve a bill banning gay conversion therapy for those under the age of 18.

In a sometimes emotional hearing, the House Public Health Care and Human Services Committee voted 8-3 to approve House Bill 1129, on its fifth and likely final time through the General Assembly given that Democrats now lead the legislature.

In a nod to potential legal questions, the bill was amended to remove language banning the advertising of conversion therapy.That’s due to a Jan. 30 decision by a Tampa, Florida, federal magistrate who ruled against a city ordinance that banned conversion therapy. In the ruling, Judge Amanda Sansone decided the plaintiffs who claimed talk therapy was a form of free speech had a good chance of winning their case.

Fifteen states and the District of Columbia ban conversion therapy for minors. Denver City Council passed a law in January banning the practice.

Wednesday’s hearing drew a handful of opponents and about 20 supporters, many of whom tearfully shared their experiences with conversion therapy .

Mathew Shurka said he went through five years of conversion therapy, from the time he was 16 until he was 21. When he told told his father he was gay, his father supported him at first.

Then a therapist told his father there was no such thing as homosexuality, and that Shurka had either suffered trauma as a child or had too many female role models. During his time in therapy, he was forbidden from talking to his mother or two sisters, and it eventually broke his family apart, he said.

Shurka, who now runs a national campaign against conversion therapy, said he considered suicide.

“I believed it would work, but I didn’t understand how horrifying the effect” of it would be, he told the committee.

Conversion therapy has been discredited by both the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association, according to Dr. Sarah Bergamy of Denver.

“I believe this is abuse,” Bergamy told the committee. “You have to prohibit it in the strongest way possible.

Training on conversion therapy is no longer provided in medical settings because it is an invalidated process, witnesses told the committee.

Among those who opposed the bill was attorney Jenna Ellis with the conservative Christian group Colorado Family Action. Ellis said the bill is unconstitutional, and that the General Assembly is overreaching when it attempts to tell a therapist what he or she can or cannot do.

And while the bill only addresses licensed therapists, Ellis said she believes the law will eventually be extended to those in the faith community and “into the walls of the church.”

To call conversion therapy a fraud “negates those who are gender confused,” Ellis added.

But the bill’s sponsors, Democratic Reps. Dafna Michaelson Jenet of Commerce City and Daneya Esgar of Pueblo, both pointed out that state law already protects faith-based, unlicensed counselors who operate out of churches and other religious organizations. 

HB 1129 defines conversion therapy as such that is practiced by a licensed medical professional.

In January, the Archdiocese of Denver held a "Gender Matters" conference that helped launch a conversion therapy program in the churches. The program is designed by Andrew Comiskey, who formerly ran Exodus International and now operates Desert Stream Living Waters Ministry.

The program trains parishioners "to set up groups in their local churches with the goal of 'healing' LGBTQ people and others who are 'sexually and relationally' broken by transforming them into 'mature heterosexuals,'" according to the website rewire.news.

Wednesday’s hearing proved one thing: that signs of a shift  in part due to the election of a dozen millennial lawmakers  are starting to show in the Colorado General Assembly.

“This is a generational issue,” Republican Rep. Colin Larson of Littleton told the committee. He shared how he grew up playing with his sister’s gay friends.

“In good conscience, I cannot rob any kid of the opportunity to discover who they are and in their own time,” he said, his voice choked with emotion.

Fellow Republican Rep. Larry Liston of Colorado Springs agreed a generational shift is at work, although he voted against the measure.

The topic "was foreign to me” when he was growing up, he said, adding that in the five years sponsors have tried to win support for the bill, he has learned a lot.

“It’s been an evolution for me," he said.

Republican Rep. Lois Landgraf, also of Colorado Springs, voted against the bill based on legal concerns, stating it wasn’t appropriate for the governor to tell medical professionals what they can do. It’s up to the profession, she said.

Even though she also voted no, “I’m not sorry it will pass,” she added.

The measure passed on an 8-3 vote and now heads to the full House.

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