By Victoria Cavaliere
NEW YORK (Reuters) - New Jersey Republican Governor Chris Christie on Monday signed into law a measure to prevent therapists from counseling gay and lesbian youths to change their sexual orientation, making his the second U.S. state to ban so-called conversion therapy.
The state senate approved the measure in June, putting it on the desk of Christie, who is seeking re-election this fall and also widely considered a White House contender for the Republican Party in 2016.
Citing medical and psychiatric research that sexual orientation is determined at birth, the law bans state-licensed counselors, therapists and social workers from practicing a method of talk therapy that opponents have said is deeply damaging to the self-esteem and identity of gay youths.
Christie said he was signing the legislation based on research that found "efforts to change sexual orientation can pose critical health risks, including, but not limited to, depression, substance abuse, social withdrawal, decreased self-esteem and suicidal thoughts."
But he said he still had "concerns about government limiting parental choice on the care and treatment of their own children."
Former New Jersey Democratic Governor Jim McGreevey, who stepped down from office in 2004 in a gay sex scandal, praised the measure, saying it was based in "sound psychiatric research."
"Governor Christie should really be applauded," McGreevey told Reuters. "Whenever a governor of his stature signs a bill like this, it sends a message, not just to the nation but to the individual child that you are normal and as God made you."
New Jersey becomes the second state after California to outlaw conversion therapy for people under age 18. However, the California measure has yet to take effect because of a lawsuit challenging its constitutionality.
Opponents of the New Jersey law have promised a legal fight as well.
John Tomicki of the League of American Families said both the New Jersey and California laws infringed on a parent's right to decide the best treatment for his or her child.
Troy Stevenson, executive director of Garden State Equality, a gay rights group and leading proponent of the measure, said there were moves to ban the practice in Massachusetts and New York. "There's a huge push to ban this kind of abuse nationally," Stevenson added.
Conversion therapy has become increasingly controversial. In June, California-based Exodus International, a Christian group championing it, apologized for the harm it caused and said it was shutting its doors after 38 years.
(Reporting by Victoria Cavaliere; Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst, Alden Bentley and Lisa Von Ahn)