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Conversion-therapy ban will not affect religious practice, says Government

17 February 2022

Letter from religious leaders lobbying to drop the ban ‘puts out a message that people aren’t safe in our churches’ says Oxford diocese

Peter Tatchell and Jayne Ozanne campaigning for a ban on conversion therapy outside the Cabinet Office in London last June

Peter Tatchell and Jayne Ozanne campaigning for a ban on conversion therapy outside the Cabinet Office in London last June

THE Government’s proposed ban on conversion therapy will “not impact everyday religious practice”, a spokesperson said this week, after a meeting between officials from the Government Equalities Office and religious leaders.

In December, a letter signed by more than 2500 “Christian ministers and pastoral workers”, including hundreds of C of E clergy, was sent to the Equalities Minister, Liz Truss, urging the Government to drop its proposals to ban conversion therapy (News, 10 December 2021). On Wednesday evening, the Bishop of Dorchester, the Rt Revd Gavin Collins, issued a statement warning that the letter “puts out a message that people aren’t safe in our churches, and it cuts across the settled view of the Church of England that coercive conversion therapy is unacceptable and should be banned.”

The letter argued that the category of “conversion therapy” was “so broad as to be essentially meaningless. It has the effect of implying an equivalence between calling people to conversion to Christ, which is our duty as Christian ministers, and evil and disreputable past practices which are already illegal and which Christians are the first to condemn.

“Legislating against such a bizarrely broad category is clearly not viable and strongly risks criminalising us as we fulfil our compassionate duties as Christian ministers and pastors. This would be a clear breach of our legal right to manifest our religion. . .

“It should not be a criminal offence for us as Christian ministers to persuade, to teach and to help people of every age to become, and to live as, orthodox Christians. It should not be a criminal offence for us to instruct our children that God made them male and female, in his image, and has reserved sex for the marriage of one man and one woman.”

The authors of the letter include members of the General Synod: Dr Ros Clarke, associate director of the Church Society; Dr Julie Maxwell, a youth worker at St Mary’s, Basingstoke; and the Revd Dr Ian Paul, an associate minister of St Nicholas’s, Nottingham, and a member of the Archbishops’ Council. The Evangelical Alliance has previously expressed similar concerns (News, 19 March 2021).

Several of those involved in writing the letter were invited to a meeting at the Government Equalities Office last week, including Dr Clarke.

“We were able to explain that the proposed legislation appears to criminalise normal Christian ministry, including pastoral support and prayer for those seeking to live in obedience to the Bible’s teaching on sex and marriage,” she said on Tuesday. “We were assured that there is no intent to criminalise Christian ministry, and that the legislation will be redrafted to avoid this possibility. However, when asked for examples of the kind of thing they did intend to ban, they were unable to give a clear answer.

“We remain utterly opposed to the abusive conversion therapies practised in the past, by secular groups as well as churches, involving physical and/or emotional abuse.”

On Tuesday, a spokesperson for the Government’s Equality Hub said: “Conversion therapy is an abhorrent practice, and we are absolutely committed to banning the practice of it in the UK. The Government’s proposals to ban conversion therapy will not impact everyday religious practice, and there should be no doubt that individuals will still be able to access support and counsel from religious leaders.”

In a blog last month, “Mythbusting the conversion therapy ban”, the Minister for Equalities, Mike Freer, said that the ban was his “immediate priority”. He continued: “This Government has no intention to stop parents, clinicians, teachers, or anyone else from having open and explorative conversations with young people or others about their sexual orientation or whether they are transgender or not. As Minister for Equalities, I will not allow these kinds of supportive conversations to be outlawed. It is in no one’s interest. . .

“We believe an act of talking conversion therapy requires an intent to change a person to being something they are not, an active attempt by one person to change another person: this is quite distinct from the type of open conversations that do not seek to pressure or coerce a person into any particular outcome, that we are all determined to protect.”

The Government remained committed to preparing legislation for this spring, and introducing it “as soon as parliamentary time allows”.

On Tuesday, the director and chair of the Ozanne Foundation, Jayne Ozanne, and the Dean of St Edmundsbury, the Very Revd Joe Hawes, drew attention to the Cooper report, commissioned by the Foundation (News, 1 October 2021), which advised the Government that “an exemption for religious conversion practices, such as an act of spoken prayer directed at an individual with the predetermined purpose of suppressing, curing or changing their sexual orientation or gender identity, would undermine the efficacy of the prohibition.”

They said: “We have always been clear that this therefore does not cover general religious teaching or prayer that seeks to give a safe space for people to explore and come to a point of peace about who they are. Those church leaders who are determined to continue inflicting harm will soon be called to account for their actions.”

On Wednesday evening, the diocese of Oxford issued a statement from the Bishop of Dorchester, the Rt Revd Gavin Collins, noting that the letter sent in December, had “undoubtedly upset a lot of people. It puts out a message that people aren’t safe in our churches, and it cuts across the settled view of the Church of England that coercive conversion therapy is unacceptable and should be banned.

“I am disappointed that the authors have used an open letter to diminish people who are in faithful same-sex relationships and those who are transgender. I am clear that we are all made in God’s image, that we are all welcome in His church and that everyone has a place at the table.”

The Government’s consultation on banning conversion therapy ended on 4 February. In 2017, the General Synod called on the Government to ban conversion therapy (News, 14 July 2017), and, in 2018, the Government announced plans to bring forward proposals (News, 6 July 2018).

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