Republican Gov. Chris Christie signed a law on Monday barring licensed therapists from trying to turn gay teenagers straight, the latest example of the potential 2016 presidential candidate steering a moderate course.
The governor said the health risks of trying to change a child's sexual orientation, as identified by the American Psychological Association, trump concerns over the government setting limits on parental choice. "Government should tread carefully into this area," he said in the signing note, "and I do so here reluctantly."
The decision marked the third time this month that Christie has staked out a moderate position on a hot-button social issue as he seeks a second term in a Democratic-leaning state. It also offers more evidence that the popular governor is positioning himself as a pragmatist who shuns more conservative elements within his party.
Christie found middle ground on medical marijuana for children when he agreed Friday to allow growers to cultivate additional strains, and for marijuana to be made in an edible form for chronically ill children. But he would not lift an oversight provision that could require as many as three doctors to sign off on a prescription.
Last week, Christie vetoed a bill banning .50-caliber rifles that was vigorously opposed by firearms rights advocates and gutted a proposed overhaul of the state's gun permit law that relied on undeveloped technology. Recently, he signed 10 less-significant gun measures the Democrat-led Legislature passed after last year's deadly school shooting rampage in Newtown, Conn.
The decisions allow Christie to quiet some of the criticism he could face from conservatives by offering specific reasons why he was taking the steps, often citing compassion for the needs of children and families.
His approval of the conversion therapy ban could be met with criticism in Christian conservative circles with influence in early voting states like Iowa and South Carolina.
Conversion therapy gained attention two years ago when former GOP presidential candidate Michele Bachmann was questioned over whether her husband's Christian counseling business provided services that attempted to change gays and lesbians. Bachmann's husband, Marcus, denied involvement in the therapy and the congresswoman dropped out of the presidential campaign in January 2012 after a poor showing in the Iowa caucuses.
In signing the ban, Christie reiterated his belief that people are born gay and homosexuality is not a sin, a position he first stated in a 2011 interview with CNN's Piers Morgan. That view is inconsistent with his Catholic faith, which teaches that homosexual acts are sins.
Christie said on "issues of medical treatment for children we must look to experts in the field to determine the relative risks and rewards," citing a litany of potential ill effects of trying to change sexual orientation, including depression, drug abuse and suicide.
"I believe that exposing children to these health risks without clear evidence of benefits that outweigh these serious risks is not appropriate," he said.
Christie, however, has not moderated his position on gay marriage, which he vetoed and continues to oppose. As a result, gay rights activists applauded Monday's bill signing but pushed for more.
"It is our truest hope that the governor will realize, as the majority of the legislature and a super-majority of the public have realized, that the best way to ensure lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender youth are protected from the abuse of being ostracized is to provide them with equality," Troy Stevenson, executive director of the state's largest gay rights group, Garden State Equality, said in a statement.
Christie has said he supports the state's civil union law, which was enacted to give gay couples the benefits of marriage but not the title. Several couples have since sued, claiming the law provides them unequal treatment. A court decision is expected next month.
Gay rights groups say conversion therapy damages young people, because it tells them that it's not acceptable to be whoever they are.
Some social conservatives framed the debate as a parental rights issue, saying a ban on the counseling would limit the ability of parents to do what they think is best for their children.
Conversion therapy has increasingly drawn criticism for its methods. Last year, four gay men sued a Jersey City group for fraud, saying its program included making them strip naked and attack effigies of their mothers with baseball bats.
California has also banned it.
Ken Thomas contributed to this report from Washington.