Victorian Conversion Bill passes, debate will continue

The Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Bill has passed in the Victorian Parliament’s Upper House (Legislative Council) and will become law. It heads to the Governor for Royal Assent, a formal process.

The Bill bans practices – including some religious practices – which aim to change or suppress a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. These include prayer conversations suggesting change, and counselling when targeted at an individual.

If the practices are regarded as producing injury or serious injury by a court, they can involve a jail sentence and a large fine.

One group that feels especially targeted by the Bill are celibate gay Christians.

“We’re seeing from the Victorian government in its Bill – which I refuse to call a ‘Gay Conversion Bill’ – the desire to lock someone in jail for up to ten years if they talk freely about being a gay celibate Christian with someone who could very easily use the legislation to say it harmed them,” posted David Bennett from Oxford, where he is finishing a philosophy doctorate.

“I could be locked in jail for ten years for being a public ‘Side B‘ Christian who counsels or provides support [to] individuals who, one day, decide Side B views are harmful, including a teaching which says The Fall is part of the reason same-sex desire exists. Let that sink in for a moment. [Editor’s Note: ‘Side B’ refers to a LGBTIQ individual who choses to be celibate in following Jesus].

“I was never consulted or spoken to by the Victorian Government, nor any Side B Australians I know. Let that anger you.

“I’m doing a thesis on gay celibacy at the University of Oxford, for crying out loud. I’ve been harmed multiple times as an LGBTQI person by progressivism as I have by more conservative thinking.

“What this Bill constitutes is quite simply a colonisation of the queer Christian body, especially queer celibate Christian … body, and deprivation of the right to live and commend an orthodox ethic which rejects conversion therapy and seeks to live in the catholic ethic of the Church for [more than] 2000 years.”

On the other hand, LGBTIQ activists and those who are convinced that Christian teaching is harmful to same-sex and transgender people, will be pleased the bill has passed.

“I’ve known a number of people who lived through conversion practices, and went on to take their own lives,” Dr Karl Hand – a pastor of Crave Church, a gay-affirming church – tells Eternity.

“I wish they could be here to see what Victoria has done to protect and uphold their value as precious, unique children of God, who aren’t defective and have the right to be proud of who they are.

“Other governments in Australia must now follow the example that Victoria has set for us.”

Eternity is not endorsing Dr Hand’s theology, but his testimony about harm aligns with the campaigning that led to this Bill, in particular concern about same sex suicide rates.

A study that formed one of the key planks in support of the Bill was by La Trobe University and the Human Rights Law Centre,  “Preventing Harm, Promoting Justice: Responding to LGBT conversion therapy in Australia”,  details testimonies of LGBTIQ people involved in churches and the harm they say they experienced.

But in line with the conservative leanings of a majority of church-goers on this subject, a large number of religious leaders in Victoria who opposed this Bill will be disappointed. Baptist Minister Murray Campbell, a campaigner against the bill posted tonight: “Under this Act, if Jesus shared his views with an individual or prayed with someone who came to him because they were struggling with their sexual or gender identity, Jesus could face criminal charges and time in prison. Why? Jesus taught that all sexual relations outside of marriage between a man and a woman are immoral (cf Matthew 19). Of course Jesus’ view, which upholds the teaching of the Bible, form the beliefs that Christians carry today and that shape our lives.”

The Bill attempts to divide sermons and general discussion of same-sex and gender issues which might take a conservative line, from activities which are:

  • directed at an individual;
  • on the basis of a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity;
  • have the aim to change or suppress that person’s identity.

For example, the Office of the Commissioner for LGBTIQ+ Communities addressed the question of prayer in answers to Eternity‘s questions.

Question from Eternity: “Prayer is specifically mentioned in the Bill. Which prayer practices will be regarded as offences?
a) Praying with a LGBTIQ person that they might change their sexual orientation.
b) Praying with a LGBTIQ person that they might be celibate.
c) Praying in general terms that LGBTIQ persons might change or be celibate?
If general prayer in c) is reported to the Commission what is the likely response? Will the Commission attempt to stop that sort of prayer?”

Answer from the Commissioner’s office: “The law would possibly be engaged by the first practice, where the praying is with the LGBTQ person in an attempt to change or suppress their sexuality or gender identity. The second point, around celibacy, would probably only be triggered by this law if the celibacy was on the basis of a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity with the purpose of suppressing that person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Praying in general terms will not engage this law.”

“In short, you can pray for a person, but not at them or over them.

“If general prayer in c) is reported to the Commission, the Commission would not be required or empowered to do anything as this is not a change or suppression practice. The Commission would decline to consider the report.

“There will be a 12-month period before the law starts, in order to allow important implementation work to be completed. The Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission will lead this and consult widely with Victorians.”

This 12-month period means that the precise implications of the new law can’t be presently defined. But the broad outline above applies. The area of legal danger for Christians will involve one-to-one conversations, counselling and prayer, in cases where “injury” can be established. This is the area that will constitute an offence (Taking someone out of Victoria for a conversion practice or advertising a conversion practice are also offences).

People like David Bennett whose personal story is of a change from being a gay activist to a celibate gay Christian will have to navigate any ministry in Victoria very carefully. Where does his testimony move from general discussion to suggesting an individual follow his path?

Similarly with a family discussion. When does parents discussing their religious belief trip into change or suppression practice? The government insists that guidance will be clear but, for this writer, this is one of the grey areas of this new law.

However, for all the alleged harms in the La Trobe study,to have been addressed by the new law, then a much more draconian ban would have been needed.

The study says: “‘Preventing Harm, Promoting Justice” looks to a future where no person of faith is pressured to choose one valued and sacred part of themselves at the expense of another.”

Experiences in that study include sermons about “pray the gay away”, and experiencing the disapproval of ministers and congregations which those interviewed reported as having harmed them.  But as Eternity reads the current Bill, these activities are not captured by it. Not every “harm” suggested by a LGBTIQ+ person in that study is covered. Another study which details experiences in Australian Pentecostal churches includes examples of people asked to leave their church. This is also not covered by the bill. In this way, the Bill is somewhat of a compromise – a view which will not sit kindly with those who experience this Bill as an intrusion into their practice of Christianity  and also to those who promote it as stopping all suppression practices. (This is not to endorse where the compromise has been set, but simply to note it is not a maximalist solution.)

But rather than non-Victorians who take the conservative and traditional Christian view simply being glad they are not in Victoria, part of the reaction to this Bill should be to examine how churches can relate better to LGBTIQ+ Australians and their allies.

This is a discussion churches should lead – the compressed legislative timetable in Victoria has seen religious groups reacting rather than setting the terms of a discussion.

Where is the boundary in families – or churches – for example, between having a Christian view explained and someone experiencing being “berated”? How to handle this topic well in families is something that should be taught in churches.

What is the distinction between being disagreed with to being shunned, or teased?

In addition to the challenges of living with this new law in Victoria, a wider discussion in our churches is required.