Fears ban on 'conversion practices' will criminalise prayer and traditional church teaching


Christians in Australia have voiced concerns about proposed changes to the law in the state of Victoria to outlaw "conversion practices" that could include prayer, pastoral care and religious teaching against sexual activity outside marriage.

The Victorian government plans to introduce laws to "denounce and prohibit harmful LGBTIQ conversion practices", which include "any practice or treatment that seeks to change, suppress or eliminate an individual's sexual orientation or gender identity".

The definition draws on reports criticising conversion therapy by the Health Complaints Commissioner (HCC) and Human Rights Law Commission (HRLC).

The government has already indicated that it is prepared to limit religious freedom in order to protect members of the LGBT community. 

"Manifestation of religious belief through religious practice is protected by the right to freedom of religion," it says in a consultation document.

"This right to manifest is not absolute and some argue that it is not clear that it extends to practices that seriously harm others.

"The impact of a ban of conversion practices on right to freedom of religion may be justified given the nature and extent of the harm described in the HCC and HRLC Reports.

"Legislation to implement the government announcement of a ban on conversion therapy needs to demonstrate that it is necessary, effective, and proportionate to protect LGBT individuals from harm."

Explaining the government's motives, Victorian Attorney-General Jill Hennessy said last month: "We are taking action to ban cruel and insidious conversion practices, which are nothing short of harmful quackery and bigotry.

"We want to make sure our legislation truly puts an end to anyone peddling these deeply harmful practices in our state."

Mark Sneddon, Executive Director of the Institute for Civil Society, which defends freedom of belief, said the Victorian government should make a distinction between "discredited" therapeutic practices and entire religious worldviews on human sexuality.

He said that the definition of "conversion practices" was too broad and that the wording should be limited so that it does not include teaching, prayer or religious pastoral counselling based on beliefs like celibacy and monogamy within marriage.

"There have been discredited conversion practices in the past such as psychological aversion therapy used by secular and religious people which caused real harm to people," he said.

"[T]eaching, prayer and pastoral counselling may be objectionable to some people and in some cases may have been insensitive and caused pain, but they are not "conversion practices" in any normal sense of that term.

"They are common worldwide religious teaching and practices based on religious worldviews about human sexuality and human society."

He continued: "In short this is a clash of worldviews about human sexuality. Being exposed to different worldviews which conflict with one's own can be a painful experience.

"But the correct response is a greater sensitivity to others and an acceptance that each of us has a right to disagree with or ignore worldviews we don't like, but not a right to use the law to ban other people from expressing and living by worldviews we don't like." 

Murray Campbell, Pastor of Mentone Baptist Church, in Victoria, has also been critical of the proposals. 

Writing on his blog, he said he feared that the definition of what constituted "harmful" conversion therapy may be so broad that church sermons, Bible Studies, and marriage courses all stand to be affected.

"To be clear, the Victorian Government is targeting religion, and specifically, the primary focus is on Christian churches, organisations, and denominations," he said.

"I don't know of anyone who would argue against protecting people from genuine harm. But dragging traditional Christian teaching and ethics into the 'harm' category diminishes the real harm that has been done to some Victorians."