(Adds comments from lawyers for Boca Raton, Palm Beach County)
By Jonathan Stempel
Nov 20 (Reuters) - A divided federal appeals court on Friday declared unconstitutional two south Florida laws that banned therapists from offering conversion therapy to children struggling with their sexual orientation or gender identity.
In a 2-1 decision, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with two therapists who said the laws in the city of Boca Raton and Palm Beach County violated their free speech rights.
Circuit Judge Britt Grant said that while enjoining the laws "allows speech that many find concerning--even dangerous," the First Amendment "does not allow communities to determine how their neighbors may be counseled about matters of sexual orientation or gender."
Conversion therapy aims to change people's sexual orientations or gender identities.
The therapists, Robert Otto and Julie Hamilton, said their clients typically had "sincerely held religious beliefs conflicting with homosexuality," and sought counseling to conform their identities and behaviors with those beliefs.
Republican President Donald Trump appointed both judges in Friday's majority.
Circuit Judge Barbara Martin, appointed by Democratic President Barack Obama, dissented, citing a compelling interest in protecting children from a "harmful therapeutic practice."
In separate statements, Boca Raton's lawyer Jamie Cole and Palm Beach County's lawyer Helene Hvizd called the dissent "well-reasoned," and said both were weighing their legal options.
Mat Staver, a lawyer for the therapists, called the decision the first of its kind by a federal appeals court, and "a huge victory" enabling people to choose counseling free of government censorship.
A June study by the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law said 20 states and Washington, D.C. ban licensed healthcare professionals from conducting conversion therapy on children.
Critics say the practice stigmatizes lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, and is linked to depression, anxiety and suicide.
The American Psychiatric Association also opposes conversion therapy, saying the practice often assumes that homosexuality is a mental disorder.
Some supporters of the practice have offered religious justifications or said it is unethical not to offer clients that option.
The case is Otto et al v City of Boca Raton, Florida et al, 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 19-10604. (Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Tom Brown)
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