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La Crosse sued for gender identity ordinance

By M.D. Kittle

Wisconsin Spotlight | Oct. 14, 2022

MADISON — In the city of La Crosse, medical and mental health professionals who attempt to “change behaviors or gender expressions” of minors can face a $1,000 fine, even lose their licenses. In short, they either toe the liberal line on gender transitions for children or pay the price.

Now the city of La Crosse faces a lawsuit for infringing on the First Amendment rights of health care workers.

The Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL) on Thursday filed a  federal lawsuit against the city on behalf of Joy Buchman, a licensed mental health professional and owner of Kinsman Redeemer Counseling Center, LLC. The suit challenges the city’s ordinance that penalizing medical or mental health professionals if they express certain prohibited viewpoints relating to sexual orientation or gender identity when counseling their minor patients.

For example, the ordinance would require professional counselors to either affirm the decision of any minor patient to transition to a new gender identity—despite ongoing, good-faith disagreements among professionals on whether and under what circumstances such transitions should take place—or remain silent.

“The City of La Crosse is under the mistaken impression that it can simply punish citizens who dare to voice officially disfavored viewpoints on public issues of critical importance,” said Anthony LoCoco, deputy counsel for the Milwaukee-based civil rights law firm. “The First Amendment prohibits exactly this kind of big-government bullying. Attempts to falsely paint as hateful those who share good-faith disagreements on matters going to the core of what it means to be human won’t salvage the City’s position.”

In August, WILL sent a  public letter  to the La Crosse Common Council warning that Ordinance No. 5220 violates free speech, religious liberty, and due process guarantees under the state and federal constitutions, among other legal problems. The letter explained why the prohibitions in the original ordinance unconstitutionally restricted the speech of clergy, parents, and licensed mental health counselors.

The City Council last month passed an amended version of the ordinance, 8-4, with one abstention. The new ban is limited to medical and mental health professionals but continues to restrict significant amounts of speech on issues of sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity.

If medical and mental health professionals engage in any efforts to “change behaviors or gender expressions,” the chief of police and other city officials or employees can issue citations of up to $1,000 per violation. Those who do not follow the ordinance may also face a potential referral to the Wisconsin Department of Safety and Professional Services for further investigation and possible sanction.

WILL’s lawsuit alleges the city has no power to pick and choose which viewpoints are permissible or impermissible in counselor-patient discourse, preventing Buchman from counseling in a manner consistent with her professional and religious views. The lawsuit also argues that the statute violates free exercise protections, is unconstitutionally vague, and is preempted by state law.

The lawsuit requests the court enter a declaratory judgement that the ordinance violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments, the Wisconsin Constitution, and is preempted by state law. The suit also urges the court to bar La Crosse from enforcing the ordinance, and award Buchman nominal damages, costs, and attorney’s fees.

“My mission as a counselor is to provide healing and guidance to anyone who comes to me for help,” Buchman said. “Government officials should not be allowed to police the private conservations I have with clients in need and then punish me for saying something they don’t like.”

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