This week, a bill to ban conversion therapy has been introduced at First Reading in the Lords by Lib Dem Peer Baroness Burt. It’s likely that there will be a second reading of the legislation before Christmas.
You might remember that before the King’s Speech, there was intense speculation over whether the UK Government would include a conversion therapy ban in its legislative programme.
In the end, no such bill was included but in the days after the King’s speech, a private members’ bill ballot took place in the Lords. This is where bills are chosen at random and the top 25 are guaranteed parliamentary time. Bill number one? The Conversion Therapy Prohibition Bill.
In a press release, the Lib Dems hail their ‘landmark Bill’ and Baroness Burt bemoans the failure of the Conservatives to deliver on the promise to ban conversion therapy. She claims there is also cross-party consensus for dealing with this ‘awful practice’.
Looking closely at the Bill itself, there are three striking aspects. Firstly, it applies in every part of the United Kingdom. Even though the Scottish Government is planning to introduce a ban in Scotland, and the Welsh Government has made similar noises. It’s clear the aim is to put pressure on all UK-governments.
It’s also striking that, contrary to what the ITV Journalist Paul Brand tweeted, there are no legal protections on the face of the Bill at all. There is a vague comment in a press release that the Bill is drafted in such a way to ‘robustly differentiate between psychological practice or religious advice and conversion therapy’. From my reading of the Bill, that claim cannot stand up to scrutiny.
The third thing is that the Bill does include gender. Previously, when Boris Johnson was PM, after two U-turns, he said the government would still introduce a ban, but only on conversion therapy practices aimed at sexual orientation. This Bill goes further and retains gender. This potentially means conversations about the Bible’s teaching on sex and gender could fall foul of the legislation.
To summarise: this is a dangerously broad Bill which applies across the whole of the UK, includes gender and contains no legal safeguards whatsoever.
What happens next?
It’s important to note that private members’ bills rarely become law, especially those that originate in the House of Lords. Even if the Bill passes all its stages in the Lords, it needs to complete the same journey through the Commons.
It would be one thing if there were two to three years until the next election. But all the signals suggest we’re heading for a 2024 election, with the latest possible date rumoured to be January 2025.
When you factor in parliamentary recess and holidays, there is not a huge amount of parliamentary time left. And what time will be used for the government’s legislative priorities, announced in the recent King’s Speech.
However – and this is key – while this Bill might not become law, it will generate media headlines and speculation, and it could ratchet up pressure on the government to act.
What’s the problem with a conversion therapy ban?
It’s also vital to say that CARE agrees that any ‘practices’, ‘treatments’ or ‘therapies’ that seek to force, or coerce a person to change their sexual identity and/or gender are wholly inappropriate. It’s right that such practices are condemned. No Christian committed to biblical Christianity can commend forced sex, psychotherapy, hormone treatment or electroconvulsive therapy as means to ‘cure’ homosexual orientation or address gender dysphoria. Moreover, we must acknowledge that the church, in various ways, has committed acts of harm against men and women who are same-sex attracted. Where necessary, we should repent of sinful actions and attitudes.
That said, our concern is that any legislative ban, especially if it is broad in nature and follows the aims of some campaigners, would seriously undermine freedom of religion and conscience. There would be damaging knock on effects for parents, teachers, children, and some medical professionals, including therapists. Church leaders who believe in historic, orthodox Christian teaching on sexuality and human identity could also come under real pressure, facing the prospect of criminal records and fines.
The Australian state of Victoria passed a conversion therapy ban – and is held up as a model by campaigners. New guidance issued recently says Christians can still express the Bible’s general teaching on sexual ethics. However, the guidance specifies what constitutes ‘appropriate’ prayers. Prayers that talk about the need to repent are likely to be illegal under its broad legislation.
It’s precisely this sort of outcome that we’re concerned about. As we look ahead to the election, we also note with concern the Labour Party’s promise to introduce a ‘no-loopholes’ conversion therapy ban. If there is a Labour government after the next election, they will face the same questions that the current government is facing: is it possible to pass a ban that doesn’t end up infringing fundamental freedoms? Can you guarantee that there will be no unintended consequences?
Conversion is also a distinctly Christian word. It signifies a radical transformation. Far more thought needs to be given to conflation and confusion with terminology used in this Bill or any like it.
Christians should be vigilant over these questions, quick to emphasise that we reject any abusive practices, and as quick to point out that precious freedoms need to be respected. We should also use debates about this legislation as an opportunity to affirm God's better story when it comes to marriage, sexuality and gender identity.