Victoria's 'conversion practices bill' could be law next week

A law that outlaws counselling or praying with persons to change their sexual orientation or transgender status – or for them to adopt a celibate lifestyle – could pass the Victorian Parliament next week.

The Change-Suppression (Conversion) Prohibition Bill 2o20 will likely be debated in the upper house (The Legislative Council) of the State Parliament in the first week of February. The Age reported that the bill would put the Daniel Andrews government “on a collision course with churches”.

That’s coming true with leaders from the largest churches in the state opposing the bill.

Melbourne’s Catholic Archbishop Peter Comensoli told The Sunday Age: “Who I pray to, how I pray, what I pray for, and most particularly, who I pray with is not of concern to any government.”

Leading Baptist Minister Dale Stephenson of Crossway Church told The Herald Sun the “one-sided general bill went way too far”. (Eternity reported some earlier responses, some quite muted, here)

The bill creates criminal offences for “serious injury” or “injury” to an individual subjected to attempts to change or suppress their sexuality or gender identity. These can carry penalties of jail or heavy fines, and the bill’s definition of change practices specifically include religious practices such as prayer.

“The scope of this legislation goes well beyond the specific ‘injury’ offences that are created (while these are problematic enough),” comments Neil Foster, Associate Professor in law at the University of Newcastle. “The bill creates a powerful set of bureaucratic mechanisms by which religious groups presenting the classic teachings of their faith may be subject to investigation and ‘re-education’ by human rights officers.

“It arguably makes the presentation of some aspects of Biblical teaching unlawful if the aim of that teaching is to encourage someone to follow that teaching in their own life. Despite the appearance of addressing horrific and oppressive quasi-psychological procedures inflicted on young people, the bill goes well beyond this laudable goal, and will make it unlawful to provide assistance in obeying the Bible to those who explicitly and with full understanding request such help. Enactment of this legislation would be a serious mistake.” (His detailed analysis of the bill on his “Law and Religion Australia” blog is here.)

The bill is aimed at interactions with individuals. This means that sermons and general discussions are not affected by the bill as drafted. “Some sermons may express beliefs that seem contrary to the aim of this bill, which affirms that people of faith have the right to express their views, but not to force them upon other people,” Eternity was told by the Commissioner for LGBTIQ+ Communities in answer to our questions.

“The law becomes triggered when it is aimed at changing or suppressing an individual.”

But prayers and counselling with individuals will constitute an offence (if “injury” or “serious injury” is found to have occurred), or possibly will constitute a conversion effort, that will be met with a response from Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission. This Commission will have powers to investigate and offer “education”.

The Victorian Government position is that it has preserved some religious freedom in leaving sermons and general discussion outside of the act’s provisions, while acting on behalf of lesbian, gay and transgender persons.

This raises a further question of what happens within families or with discussions of LGBQ issues between friends?

Eternity was given this response from the Commissioner for LGBTIQ+ Communities: “Despite what some people may have heard, any Christian, parent or teacher is still able to express their views and beliefs. It’s possible that someone may ask, for example, what you believe and, of course, you would give an honest answer. The constraints and guidance are quite clear on discussing this in private or public with anyone, including an LGBTIQ person. The Commission will develop guidance on many of these matters during implementation of the Bill, should it pass.”

Neil Foster has a different view. He tells Eternity: “I see nothing in the bill to say it might not apply to conversations within a family context or just between friends. In section 9 of my latest blog, I refer to the deliberately obscure ‘example’ that is put into the Family Violence legislation involving a child critiquing a parent for their same-sex attraction. [This is part of the legislative package with the conversion bill] The example is there, I think, to make it clear that –

  • The Family Violence law can be extended to the obviously analogous case of a parent urging a child not to engage in same-sex activity; but also
  • To illustrate the fact that the sort of behaviour caught by the bill can happen between family members! Now the amending provision itself only operates for the FV Act, but as it is part of a “package” of amendments, I think it sends a signal that conversion or suppression practices (CSP) can be carried out by family members.
  • I do say in Section 1 [of the blog] that the relevant exception protecting health practitioners ‘does not apply to counselling or advice given by pastors or fellow congregation members or teachers or parents’.”

“In short, a CSP can be ‘conduct’ (a one-off incident), under section 5 it is not limited to being carried out by any organisational office holder, and under section 9 we see that ‘a person’ contravenes the Act if ‘the person’ carries out a CSP.

“So, yes, the prohibitions will apply to someone who is a family member or a friend.”

The Victorian Presbyterian Church’s “Church and Nation Committee” has similar concerns. Among the things they believe the bill will ban (in addition to counselling and prayer with an individual), it lists:

  • Do anything as a parent other than affirm your child if they express a view contrary to their parents views on sexuality or gender.
  • To have a conversation within the family or between friends concerning what to do about unwanted sexual desires.
  • To hurt a person’s feelings by presenting orthodox religious beliefs (or scientific evidence) which contravene a person’s own perceived sexual or gender identity.
  • Engage in ordinary disagreements and consensual conversations about religion and morality.

A similar view is expressed by the Institute for Civil Society think tank.

This discrepancy in interpretation is critical, and needs to be resolved in the debate. Eternity is in the awkward position of being unable to resolve this difference.

The bill takes one side in the debate over transgender transitioning, with provision that protects those supporting a gender transition. But those who might seek to slow down or halt a transition – outside the medical profession, at least – are exposed to the penalties in the bill.

Foster helpfully explains what is mean by “harm” or “serious harm” in the bill.

“Note that the definition of ‘injury’ and ‘serious injury’ are taken from section 15 of the Crimes Act 1958 (Vic). There we read that: ‘serious injury’ means — (a) an injury (including the cumulative effect of more than one injury) that — (i) endangers life; or (ii) is substantial and protracted …”

“The word ‘injury’ is defined in the 1958 Act to mean ‘physical injury’ or ‘harm to mental health’, and that second term is defined as follows: ‘harm to mental health’ includes psychological harm but does not include an emotional reaction such as distress, grief, fear or anger unless it results in psychological harm.

“So the section 10 offence will usually require some form of danger to life or substantial and protracted impact which results in diagnosed psychological harm. The offender has to ‘intentionally’ engage in the relevant ‘practice’, but they do not have to intend harm – that might be a result of ‘negligence’.”

Besides being more stringent than the similar bills recently passed in Queensland and the ACT, the Victorian Bill contains an unusual feature which targets conservative Christians in particular.

The bill’s stated objects include denunciation of conversion or suppression practices. In addition, the bill affirms:

  • that a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity is not broken and in need of fixing; and
  • that no sexual orientation or gender identity constitutes a disorder, disease, illness, deficiency or shortcoming; and
  • that change or suppression practices are deceptive and harmful, both to the person subject to the change or suppression practices and to the community as a whole.

If this bill passes, Christians in Victoria who affirm the traditional teachings of the Bible will be on official notice that they are out of step with society.