Case Summary & History: King v. Christie

Case: King v. Christie

STATUS: Victory, New Jersey

On August 19, 2013, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie signed the nation’s second law prohibiting state-licensed therapists from trying to change the sexual orientation or gender identity of a patient under 18 years old. Every leading medical and mental health organization in the country has warned that these practices do not work and put young people at risk of serious harm, including depression, substance abuse, and suicide.

An anti-LGBT legal group immediately filed a federal lawsuit challenging the new law on behalf of two New Jersey therapists and two organizations that support conversion therapy. In September 2013, NCLR filed a successful motion to intervene in the case on behalf of Garden State Equality, New Jersey’s largest civil rights organization and a primary supporter of the law during the legislative process. Garden State Equality intervened in the case in order to defend the law alongside the New Jersey Attorney General’s office, which represents the State of New Jersey defendants.

On September 13, 2013, NCLR filed a motion for summary judgment, asking the court to uphold the law and reject each of the plaintiffs’ constitutional challenges, citing the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit’s decision upholding a similar law in California.

On November 8, 2013, Judge Freda Wolfson of the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey upheld the law and rejected the therapists’ legal challenge. Judge Wolfson concluded that the New Jersey law “restricts neither speech nor religious expression.” She noted that the therapists’ challenge to the law “runs counter to the longstanding principle that a state generally may enact laws rationally regulating professionals, including those providing medicine and mental health services.”  The plaintiffs in the case filed an appeal.

NCLR filed briefs in the appeal arguing that the law should be upheld because it is a valid regulation of medical treatment and professional speech that protects youth from long-discredited and dangerous practices. On September 11, 2014, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed the district court’s holding that the law is constitutional. Judge Smith noted that, “It is not too far a leap in logic to conclude that a minor client might suffer psychological harm if repeatedly told by an authority figure that her sexual orientation—a fundamental aspect of her identity—is an undesirable condition. Further, if SOCE counseling is ineffective—which, as we have explained, is supported by substantial evidence—it would not be unreasonable for a legislative body to conclude that a minor would blame herself if her counselor’s efforts failed. Given the substantial evidence with which New Jersey was presented, we cannot say that these fears were unreasonable.”

The plaintiff therapists asked the Supreme Court of the United States to review the Third Circuit’s decision. On May 4, 2015, the Supreme Court declined to review the case, allowing the Third Circuit’s decision upholding the law to stand as the final decision in the case.

On November 1, 2013, the same anti-LGBT legal group filed a companion challenge to the law, Doe v. Christie, on behalf of a New Jersey minor and the parents of the minor. NCLR filed a successful motion to intervene in the case on behalf of Garden State Equality. On July 31, 2014, Judge Wolfson dismissed all of the plaintiffs’ claims. The plaintiffs appealed, and on May 20, 2015, the Third Circuit again upheld the law, holding that “the fundamental rights of parents do not include the right to choose a specific type of provider for a specific medical or mental health treatment that the state has reasonably deemed harmful.”  The plaintiffs again asked the Supreme Court to review the Third Circuit’s decision, and on February 29, 2016, the Supreme Court denied review, again allowing the Third Circuit’s decision to stand.

Garden State Equality is represented in the case by NCLR and the law firms of Kirkland & Ellis LLP and GluckWalrath LLP.