(c) 2013, Bloomberg News.

(c) 2013, Bloomberg News.

SAN FRANCISCO California's first-in-the-nation law barring licensed therapists from counseling minors to change their sexual orientation from gay to straight was upheld Thursday by a federal appeals court.

State lawmakers acted reasonably in limiting a treatment that health groups found to be harmful to minors, a unanimous three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco said in an opinion published Thursday. Protecting the well-being of children is a legitimate state interest, and the law "does not violate the free speech rights of practitioners or minor patients, is neither vague nor overbroad, and does not violate parents' fundamental rights," the court said.

The decision comes less than two weeks after New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican who has opposed same-sex marriage, signed a bill making his state the second to adopt such a ban. Counselors and professionals that use the therapy filed a federal lawsuit this month seeking to strike down the New Jersey law. Today's ruling applies to nine Western states.

California's ban on "sexual-orientation change efforts" was passed by lawmakers in August 2012 and signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in September. The law states that being gay "is not a disease, disorder, illness, deficiency or shortcoming" and cites an American Psychological Association task force that urged patients and parents to avoid the counseling because it can pose "critical health risks," including depression and suicidal thoughts.

The law bars doctors, psychologists, family therapists and social workers from providing sexual-orientation conversion therapy to patients under 18. Violators are subject to discipline by state licensing entities.

The law doesn't bar unlicensed providers, such as religious leaders, from administering the therapy or prevent licensed providers from referring minors to religious leaders to get it, according to the ruling. Mental-health providers can still express to minor patients their views about homosexuality or conversion therapy and recommend the therapy.

Therapists, parents, patients and counseling groups supporting the practice filed two lawsuits to overturn the law, claiming no studies show the therapy harms children. They also said juveniles benefit from the counseling and that the law illegally quells doctor-patient speech.

Two federal judges in Sacramento reached opposite conclusions in separate lawsuits about whether the 2012 law, originally scheduled to take effect Jan. 1, should be enforced while the court challenges proceeded.

One judge agreed that gay-conversion therapists would probably succeed on the merits of their case and granted an injunction blocking enforcement. The other sided with the state and refused to block the law.

Both sides appealed to the San Francisco panel, which put the law on hold in December. The appeals court sent the cases back to the federal judges in Sacramento to apply its findings.

"Parents have a constitutionally protected right to make decisions regarding the care, custody, and control of their children, but that right is 'not without limitations,'" the court said today. "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."

Nick Pacilio, a spokesman for California Attorney General Kamala Harris, had no immediate comment on the ruling. The press office at Liberty Counsel, a legal group representing plaintiffs that sued to overturn the California law, didn't immediately respond to an email seeking comment.

bc-calif-gay