Catholics and Presbyterians say no, other church voices muted on Vic Conversion Practices bill

(UPDATE: this bill has now passed the lower house of the Victorian Parliament)

The Victorian Church response to a new bill that will ban “religious practices” among other efforts to change or suppress sexual identity, is extremely divided. In Christian circles, reactions range from strong opposition to mild or neutral responses.

The Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Bill will return to the Victorian Parliament this week. Practices which cause “serious harm” attract up to ten years in jail and/or a fine of up to $200,000. Those that cause “harm” attract a term of up to five years or a $100,000 fine.

Prayer and other religious activity are specifically included.

As pointed out by Professor Neil Foster, material provided alongside the bill indicates some general discussion of doctrine may be okay.  The “Statement of Compatibility” – which is required in Victorian law to detail the impact on rights – makes this nuanced comment: “Although broad, the definition has been carefully designed to exclude conduct that is not directed at an individual, to reduce its impact on religious practices such as sermons. It also requires conduct be engaged in for the purpose of changing or suppressing a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity (or inducing a person to change or suppress) to limit impact on general discussions of religious beliefs around sexual orientation or gender identity that aim to explain these beliefs and not change or suppress a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.”

The second reading speech gives some more detail, that deserves a lengthy quote.

“The prohibition will be based on a broad definition of change or suppression practices …”

“The definition of change or suppression practice has three elements:

“First, the conduct must be directed at an individual. This ensures that conduct generally directed – such as sermons expressing a general statement of belief – is not captured. However, such conduct may be considered as part of the Legislative Assembly’s ongoing inquiry into anti-vilification protections.

“Second, the conduct must be ‘on the basis’ of the victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

“Third, the purpose of the person engaging in the conduct must be to change or induce another person to change or suppress their sexual orientation or gender identity.

“This definition captures a range of conduct, including:

  • A counsellor recommending to a patient that they attend group therapy sessions which support people to overcome same-sex attraction;
  • A parent sending their child to an overseas conversion therapy camp to “cure” them of being gay;
  • A person going to a religious leader seeking advice on their feelings of same-sex attraction, and the religious leader telling them they are broken and should live a celibate life for the purpose of changing or suppressing their same-sex attraction.

“While some religious practices may meet the definition of change or suppression practice in certain circumstances, the definition had been carefully crafted, and is not designed to capture all religious practices or teachings or to prevent people seeking religious counsel. For example, the definition of a change or suppression practice would likely not capture conduct where, for example, a person goes to a religious leader seeking advice on their feelings of same-sex attraction, and the religious leader informs this person that the teachings of their faith considers such feelings to be sinful, but does so only to convey their interpretation of those teachings and not to change or suppress the person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

“Similarly, the definition would likely not capture conduct where, for example, a person confides in a religious leader that they feel their gender identity does not align with the sex they were assigned at birth, and the religious leader invites this person to attend a weekly prayer group for the purpose of better understanding their feelings and to support the person’s exploration of their feelings. In addition, change or suppression practices would only attract criminal penalties where injury results from the practice and this is able to be proven.”


Peter Comensoli, the Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne, has been a strong opponent of the bill.

“I encourage every action to protect people from harm,” Archbishop Comensoli wrote in a letter to his clergy. “A bill that protected people would have my full support.”

“The problem is this bill doesn’t merely do what it claims. It targets prayer, and appears to impose silence on people of faith from sharing their beliefs in an open, honest and faithful way. The bill imposes on the right of parents and children to speak plainly and honestly with one another. It robs adults from seeking whatever guidance and pastoral support they seek concerning deeply personal matters.

“No government has an interest in what a person prays for, who they pray to, who they pray with, or what conversations happen between members of a family.

“Despite affecting religious communities in such a direct way, faith groups were afforded little consultation and were not shown a draft of this bill before its publication.

“It is not clear that parents in Victoria have been told clearly that this bill affects what they can say and how they say it with their own children.

“This looks like a dramatic over-reach of the state into family life, private matters, pastoral contexts of conversion, prayer and spiritual accompaniment.”

An “urgent call to action” by the Church and Nation committee of the Presbyterian Church of Victoria says, “The Labor Party has introduced legislation which will make ordinary Christian practice illegal under the pretence of banning those ‘hateful, forced, cruel and violent conversion therapies’ (which have already been illegal or out of practice for decades) …”

“This type of legislation is a ‘solution in search of a problem’, as was demonstrated by the government’s own discussion paper on a ‘whole of government approach to LGBTIQ+’. Therein, it is admitted that ‘Victoria surpassed the expectations of the [international index for measuring LGBTIQ+ equality]’, and that in order to have any work to do, they’d had to add an extra ‘domain’ and five extra ‘indicators’ of LGBTIQ+ ‘equality’ to work towards!

“The research used for the ‘whole of government LGBTIQ+ strategy’ was heavily skewed. The data was based almost entirely on personal surveys which measure each LGBTIQ+ respondent’s feelings or perceptions that other people treated them with hate or discriminated against them, and their subjective opinion that the perceived hate or discrimination was based on LGBTIQ+ prejudice. There was no indication of any analysis to ensure that their perceptions of “hate or discrimination” were correct, nor was there any indication of any analysis that any discriminatory behaviour was based on LGBTIQ+ prejudice as opposed to any other prejudice.”

“This is tyranny.” – Martyn Iles

The Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) is strongly opposed. “This is a bill that specifically names prayer as a criminal offence … punishable by up to 10 years in prison,” said Martyn Iles, ACL Managing Director.

“To state the obvious, the Andrews Government and the Equal Opportunity Commission have no business whatsoever deciding what people can pray for, or how they pray. They have no business whatsoever getting minors onto irreversible hormone replacement therapy and puberty blockers without parental consent. This is tyranny.”

The ACL attacks the Liberal party for “running scared.”

“If the Liberals are too scared of their own freedoms-based values to stand against the grossest attack against them in Australia’s history, then one must ask what has become of the party of Sir Robert Menzies,” said Mr Iles.

Middle ground responses.

The Baptist Union of Victoria (BUV) has provided a statement that takes a neutral position. In a letter to pastors,  Director of Mission and Ministries Daniel Bullock, and the BUV Support Hub Leadership Team, provide two alternate positions.

The first one concludes: “It would seem that this bill is not a threat to religious freedom but indeed an expression of Christian love to a vulnerable group in our community.”

The second: “At first glance, the bill sounds like a good idea. No-one wants to see practices that cause harm to others. But on a closer examination, it looks like the intent of the bill is to outlaw expression of the view that homosexuality is sinful, and some other views related to gender identity and sexuality.”

The team suggests that Baptists should, pray, read the bill and be in touch (quickly) with their MPs, to – in the words of Bullock – “seek clarity on the issues of how the bill protects the vulnerable while at the same time does not diminish freedom of conscience religion and free speech.”

“It is unfortunate that the press conversation seems to have quickly developed into a fairly polarising way.” – Philip Freier

Philip Freier, Anglican Archbishop of Melbourne, said in his weekly video update for December 9: “You will have seen that this bill goes far beyond a similar bill that had been approved in Queensland which is mainly about prohibition of the organised and systematic therapeutic things which are harmful to people which we have not been part of or would seek to endorse.”

“So if you have the opportunity, please read the bill in its entirety because reading it through will perhaps give you a sense of some of the matters of how wide-reaching this is.

“It is unfortunate that the press conversation seems to have quickly developed into a fairly polarising way. I do feel concerned in some of these debates that the political actors as they are, the political class, seem to export the debate into a community debate rather than having that debate on the principles of the law themselves. Because I think there are some principles here that are well worthy of deeper conversation and careful scrutiny. Because it is a very wide-ranging matter that seeks to enter into the kind of matters that can occur in pastoral relationships [and] can even occur in personal relationships – and have them open towards arbitration and determination by the Victorian Civil and Arbitration Tribunal. Which is something that is not particularly known to be able to enter into these questions of personal choice, personal freedom and religious expression.

“So if you read the bill, I hope you do, I’d encourage you also to talk to your local politicians. Ask them if they have read the bill because I suspect many of our politicians – as they vote on these matters – they vote along party lines and they have not read the bill in every word, as I have done to understand what its meaning is, and how it is going to be applied.

“But I think we need to have less of this being a wedge issue in the community and less a depiction of this as the church wanting to have some privileged role to harm people – which we do not – as we need to have a good and careful debate.

“Sometimes, the best way to do that is to get the local discussion going at the local level with your local politician.”

“We know it will make an important difference in the lives of many LGBTQ+ people.” – Uniting Network

Support for the Bill

Eternity has not seen a support statement for the bill from a major denomination. (We’ll update this story with further information.)

However, Uniting Network, the Uniting Church’s LGBTQ+ network urges UCA members to lobby in support of it.

“Uniting Network welcomes this long-awaited bill and as partners of the Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Change Efforts (SOGICE) Survivors Statement, we know it will make an important difference in the lives of many LGBTQ+ people,” comments Jason Masters, Uniting Network Co-Convenor.

“We call on other states to follow this example so there is national protection for LGBTQ+ people.”