Across the UK proposals are under discussion as to how to end conversion therapy.

The UK government are in the final week of consulting on proposals that will affect England and Wales, in Scotland a parliamentary committee has recently published a report calling for a ban, and in Northern Ireland proposals are expected later this year.

Defining conversion therapy

At the heart of the challenge of engaging in this policy discussion is the lack of an agreed definition of what should be classed as conversion therapy. In their submission to the UK consultation the Equality and Human Rights Commission has pointed out this obstacle: The consultation document contains no clear definition of what will amount to conversion therapy’ caught by its proposals”.

Because of this it can sometimes seem as though those pushing for a ban, and those raising concerns about the impact of a ban can be talking at cross purposes. At one end of the spectrum are horrific physical acts of abuse which are done with the express aim of trying to change the direction of someone’s sexual attraction. A UN report looks at practices across the globe and rightly defines such measures as inhuman, degrading, and in some cases meeting the threshold of torture. The Evangelical Alliance has repeatedly supported the ending of abusive and forced practices, and notes that the UK government recognises that these practices are already covered by criminal law. In its current proposals, the government suggests creating a sentencing uplift, which we also support.

However, the UN report is used by campaigners to try and justify a ban on a far wider range of practices. The report is actually far less absolute in its discussion of approaches which an individual seeks in pursuit of self determination of their sexual attraction – while not endorsing them, it is notable that it deals with them differently to coercive and abusive actions. It states: individuals may choose to avail themselves of mechanisms of support and counselling, some of which may be based on psychological, medical or religious approaches related to the exploration, free development and/​or affirmation of one’s identity”.

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International laws threatening religious freedom

At the other end of a wide range of practices grouped unhelpfully together under the term conversion therapy, is criticism of teaching which encourages or supports people to navigate their sexual attraction in line with what they believe. For evangelical Christians this has historically been understood as a commitment to limit sexual activity to within the marriage of a man and a woman. Activists straddle an often confused line on what they say should be permitted and what should be banned. Likewise, international examples such as in Canada and the Australian state of Victoria, take a confused approach which suggests it is not against the law to teach a belief, but it is against the law to offer support to anyone who seeks to live in response to that teaching. An FAQ section in a guide to the new law in Victoria says: Can I run a support group designed to help people not act on their same-sex attraction? No. This type of support group is designed to suppress a person’s sexual orientation. However, you may support or encourage others to seek professional help or guidance from a health service.”

In Canada, a new law (passed without any parliamentary scrutiny) includes within its definition of conversion therapy any practice designed to repress or reduce non-heterosexual attraction or sexual behaviour”. This could clearly be used against the teaching of evangelical beliefs around marriage, and certainly any pastoral support or prayer that an individual chooses to that end.

Proposals in Scotland

In their report on a petition to ban conversion therapy, the Scottish Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice committee said that a ban should include consensual talking therapies” in religious settings. The wording around this shines a light on another aspect of this policy debate which becomes confused by the language used. Activists suggest that a ban would not cover non-directive” or supportive pastoral conversations, which at first glance sounds like a compassionate approach, but what it actually means is pastoral conversations that take place within a framework of beliefs or teaching would be banned. It also masks the fact that all conversations take place within a framework of sorts. Even a setting that says an individual is free to pursue whatever they feel is best for them has an agenda. As with all areas of life, where neutrality is claimed, it is actually a veil for the dominance of one viewpoint.

Elsewhere in the same report, the concerns about the impact of a wide-ranging ban conversion therapy on religious freedom are summarily dismissed. The report agrees” that there is no conflict between protecting religious freedom and putting a ban in place. It also relies on the fact that most religious organisations they heard from do not think a ban would impose restrictions on religious teaching or practice, which is because they chose to hear almost entirely from organisations that were supportive of the proposal or were involved in its initiation. While quoting the evidence given by Evangelical Alliance UK director Peter Lynas, alongside others from the Christian Medical Fellowship and Catholic Bishops Conference of Scotland who all raised concerns, their evidence was not recognised or given any weight in the conclusions the committee reached.

Threat to Christian teaching

Proponents of a wide ranging ban are currently arguing that they only want to see directive” prayer or pastoral conversations included within a ban, and not religious teaching in and of itself. However, it is hard to see the consistency of this approach, or be confident that it would not be expanded to include it at a later date. In a recent episode of the Unbelievable podcast, campaigner Jayne Ozanne frequently insisted that orthodox Christian beliefs – the beliefs themselves, not even the teaching of them – were harmful, but then suggested that she didn’t want to see them banned.

In contrast, the submission from the Equality and Human Rights Commission makes clear that the freedom of religion and belief needs to be respected in any legislation. In particular it says: Encouraging people to comply with religious doctrine that requires refraining from certain types of sexual activity should not fall within the definition of conversion therapy”. They go on to note that conversion therapy will need to be carefully defined in any legislation in order to ensure that harmful practices are caught whilst mainstream religious practices such as preaching, teaching and praying about sexual ethics or gender rules, including in relation to children and young people under 18, are not criminalised.”

Make your voice heard

The UK consultation closes on Friday, 4 February so now is the chance to make your voice heard. It is vital that the government hear from Christians who would be affected by the ban. While the intent is to prevent discrimination and ill treatment, the consequences of the current proposals could be exactly the opposite. As Andrew Bunt writes, the support he received from his church as a teenager could be banned.

It is vital that as well as ensuring forced and abusive practices are ended, legislation ensures people can receive the support they choose, in particular if they want to follow beliefs that might run counter to prevailing cultural values. And the public agrees, a poll we commissioned last year found nearly six in ten adults back individuals having the freedom to choose the support they want.

NOW CLOSED: Have your say on the government’s consultation to ban conversion therapy

NOW CLOSED: Have your say on the government’s consultation to ban conversion therapy

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