The government have recently re-announced that they are going to ban conversion practices. They have announced this multiple times in the past and we are still not much clearer as to what they are actually going to do. However, as the government finalises its plans, there is a plethora of things that hang in the balance, that if not given careful consideration, could have devastating effects on people’s civil liberties and restrict the way the church provides support for those that seek it.

Legislating in this area is fraught with risks of restricting individual freedoms, conversations between parents and children, and the everyday practices of churches. We know this from legislation passed in different parts of the world, from proposals considered across the UK, and legal opinions analysing the consequences of new laws. 

What is normally the focus when proposals to ban conversion practices are discussed are efforts to change someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity. However, within this definition there are many areas that require careful consideration, and it is why the government’s announcement means virtually nothing until the draft bill they have promised is published. 

Gender identity or sex, attraction or behaviour?

First, we have to clarify what conversion practices’ are considered to be trying to change. To start with gender identity, this suggests that how someone perceives their gender is primary over their biological sex. Therefore, actions which seek to prevent someone transitioning, or to counsel caution in this regard, is considered trying to change their gender identity – even though one might reasonably counter that those facilitating the individual transitioning are the ones supporting change. 

In matters of sexual orientation this is where gay-cure’ practices are in view; attempts to force someone who is gay to be straight, and an expectation that efforts will see homosexual attraction replaced with heterosexual attraction. Over the last century horrific practices have been conducted in this arena, from electroshock therapy to aversion therapy, to encouraging people to have sex with someone of the opposite sex to turn them straight’. Abusive practices are illegal and should be. 

This becomes far more complicated, and with more complications for how legislation would work, because proposals don’t just relate to who someone is attracted to but their behaviour. 

Changing or suppressing?

Second, and this builds on the previous point, places such as Victoria in Australia and Canada have passed laws that include stopping the suppression of sexual orientation. If suppression is applied to behaviour as well as attraction, what does this mean? For Christians, and many people of other faiths, which have standards of sexual morality which encourage us to limit where sexual intimacy occurs, this could have far reaching consequences.

If efforts to repress someone’s behaviour in response to their orientation or attraction is classed as a conversion practice, then this discriminates against same-sex attracted people. To use an example, if an individual comes to a church leader asking for prayer and support to help them resist sexual temptation with their girlfriend, this is allowed if it’s a man in a straight relationship, but not for a woman in a lesbian relationship. 

Whose effort matters?

If we are thinking about how one person tries to change someone else’s sexual orientation or their behaviour, then they are in serious risk of acting in a coercive and abusive way. But, what is not sufficiently considered in proposals so far is how people can support an individual in making the choices that they make and want to live out. This is most obviously in view when we consider pastoral care in a church context, someone comes to a church leader, a youth leader, or just a peer in church, and asks for prayer and support to resist temptation – this person could be gay or straight, it is not a hard situation to envisage. It is the individuals decision to act in a way that they choose and churches must be free to provide this support through formal and informal means. 

The risk to orthodox Christian teaching

A further question those drafting the new law will need to consider is whether it makes a difference if I am speaking in response to a question from one person or preaching to a church congregation. The response could be the same, that sexual intimacy should only be between a man and a woman in a marriage. 

And yet, according to campaigners what someone says might be allowed from the pulpit to the whole congregation but not in counsel to an individual or if directed to a sub-group – that would be repressing their sexuality. This is an unsustainable differentiation and exposes the breadth of activity that could easily be restricted by badly drafted law. What campaigners are really targeting is not how the beliefs are communicated but the beliefs themselves. Christian teaching on sexuality is not going to escape unscathed from a ban on conversion practices. And this is why every time churches nod towards it being the teaching on sexuality and not the practices towards people that are problematic they put another nail in the coffin of religious freedom.

But change does happen

The final area that I do not expect to be considered in any government draft bill or policy proposal, but which it is essential we act in the light of, is that God transforms us. We do not expect to walk in step with God’s spirit and remain unchanged. Without getting too much into questions of predestination, it is far more about what God does than what we do, it is His efforts and not ours. We put our faith in Christ, and it is His power that redeems us, restores us, and sets us free. 

What can you do?

In the next few months parliament will consider proposals from the government for a new law in this area. We encourage you to write to your MP setting out why it is important care is taken in drafting such a law, to ensure that while addressing abusive practices it does not restrict the ordinary work of churches or the support people can choose to receive. 

Please also pray for us as we engage with government on these plans and pray for those in parliament and government who have influence over the policy proposals.