New conversion therapy laws, harm to LGBT vs freedom of speech

Three attempts at legislation to ban “conversion therapy” are in process  in Victoria, Queensland and the ACT.

While Queensland’s draft bill has struck trouble in a parliamentary committee, Victoria’s Premier, Daniel Andrews, has promised to “drag these practices from the dark ages and into the brightest of lights”.

The exact form of any new laws is of critical importance, both to conservative Christians and those lobbying for the new laws.

The possibility of criminal sanctions for referring people to, or practising, “conversion therapy” on LGBT people has been raised by activists Nathan Despott and Chris Csabs in the Sydney Star Observer.

A common definition of conversion therapy is “any practice or treatment that seeks to change, suppress or eliminate an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity”. This can include Christian activity such as prayer, sermons or counselling. It includes activity by both conservative Christians who believe LGBT people might change orientation (as the sexual orientation change terminology suggests), and those who simply want to encourage celibacy.

So when Despott and Csabs claim “Australia has the potential to lead the world in eliminating conversion ‘therapy’ and the ‘ex-gay’ and ‘ex-trans’ movement that lies behind it”, Christians need to examine closely what is involved. With legislation about conversion therapy approaching in Victoria, the ACT and Queensland, the exact form of any new laws is of critical importance, both to conservative Christians and those lobbying for the new laws.

“Hyperbolic fear-mongering” was the critical response from the SOGICE (Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Change Efforts) Survivors’ community to Eternity’s earlier coverage of its “Survivor Statement“, because we described Christian activities as being targeted.

Csabs and others believe this is a mischaracterisation, saying the Survivor Statement does not call for the church or individual Christians to change their beliefs, or to stop preaching. But it suggests that conservative theology about LGBT orientation should be removed from the public square.

So a key question is whether new legislation should capture practices (as distinct from beliefs) such as prayer, sermons, Bible studies and pastoral counselling which appear on lists of sexual orientation and gender identity change efforts (SOGICE).

For example, according to the Survivor Statement, SOGICE includes:

• “Pastoral advice and recommendations of websites, gender-segregated retreats and conferences, books and other resources.”

• “Informal prayer ministry (i.e. between peers or during prayer time after church services).

• “Sermons or Bible studies that talk about and reinforce ‘traditional gender roles’ and living as ‘men and women of God’.

• “Subtle and overt sermons or testimonials that encourage or promote orientation change.”

In terms of the public square, the Survivor Statement suggests: “The federal government should work with relevant federal agencies and the states to ensure that classifications and ratings for ex-gay and ex-trans publications (television, books, online content) reflect the negative impact on the psychological health of individuals that can be caused by this content.”

Tertiary courses with counselling components would be required to provide “inclusion of compulsory content and classes that systematically refute the ideology and practices associated with the conversion movement, with associated audit controls, in all tertiary courses that contain a counselling component”.

In their piece in the Star Observer, Despott and Csabs say: “The question of penalties and deterrents is yet to be fully debated, particularly the issue of whether there should be criminal sanctions for referring to, or practising, conversion therapy.”

“It is becoming clear that a debate about criminal sanctions cannot and should not be avoided.” – Nathan Despott and Chris Csabs

“Determining what penalties should apply is about protecting the LGBT community and ensuring a clear message is sent to perpetrators …

“The ramifications of criminal penalties are significant because the vast majority of referrers are church leaders who engage in pastoral care of LGBT people in their churches and who wilfully extol conversion ideology.

“In the past, this kind of discussion would land advocates right in the middle of a contentious religious freedom debate. However, as our awareness of conversion ideology and the damage it causes grows, it is becoming clear that a debate about criminal sanctions cannot and should not be avoided.”

Csabs and Despott, who are both conversion therapy survivors, assert that “the extent to which this ideology of ‘brokenness’ proliferates in Australia’s evangelical churches cannot be overstated.”

“Far from a traditional conservative view of LGBT identity as sin, the brokenness ideology has developed into a complex web of (thoroughly debunked) pseudo-scientific claims about the ’causes’ of same-sex attraction and gender identity, and the lives of LGBT people.”

However, “brokenness” as a metaphor for sin is common Christian terminology. One example that comes to mind, from a writer popular across a wide spectrum of Christians, is Henri Nouwen, who in his book Life of the Beloved, describes all humans as broken – as well as beloved.

A conservative sermon on LGBT issues might be banned from YouTube, if the Survivor Statement’s ideas were to be enacted.

Further discussion about what is meant by “the ideology of brokenness” – and whether it corresponds to some theological positions, especially conservative ones, or simply to some practices – is unclear (at least to this writer). But it is at this point that the question of religious freedom arises.

Similarly, the suggested restrictions on TV, websites and books would suggest religion should be confined to church buildings or private gatherings. A conservative sermon on LGBT issues might be banned from YouTube if the Survivor Statement’s ideas were to be enacted.

Csabs and Despott write: “Conversion ideology is far beyond the bounds of conventional theology, yet we increasingly see conservative religious bodies refer to it as central to their faith and their religious freedom.” It may be that they want only some form or version of Christian theology to be public.

Taken together, the “conversion therapy” debates and the Federal Religious Discrimination Bill suggest that Australia is in need of a discussion about freedom of speech, where the boundaries of vilification, offence and harm lie, the place of religious teaching, and where new legislation draws the line.


Some prayer points to help

Pray for a good outcome from the conversion therapy and religious discrimination debates, that engenders respect for all.