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Bill to ban conversion therapy needs careful drafting, say bishops

14 February 2024

Parliament TV

The Bishop of Guildford speaks in the debate, watched by the Bishop of Bristol

The Bishop of Guildford speaks in the debate, watched by the Bishop of Bristol

THE Bishops of Bristol and Guildford have given qualified support to a Bill banning conversion therapy, telling the House of Lords that coercive practices should be banned but that any law needs to be carefully drafted in order not to inadvertently infringe civil liberties.

The Bill being debated on Friday was a Private Member’s Bill sponsored by the Liberal Democrat peer Baroness Burt of Solihull. The promise of a government-backed Bill on conversion therapy has yet to materialise.

During Friday’s debate, Baroness Burran, a junior minister sitting in the House of Lords, said that it remained the Government’s intention to publish a draft Bill for scrutiny.

Since the summer, there have been reports that a promised ban was off the table (News, 19 September 2023), rumours that it was back on (News, 20 October 2023), and anger when, in the end, it was not put forward in the King’s Speech (News, 7 November 2023).

Putting forward her Bill, Baroness Burt said that the first challenge was to define “conversion therapy”, which is “not therapy at all”.

“Conversion therapy is any practice with the predetermined purpose of changing or suppressing a person’s expression of their sexual orientation or gender identity. These practices are based on the belief that there is a right way to behave and live your life,” she said.

She outlined four arguments made against adopting a ban on conversion therapy: that it infringes free speech; that objections to “LGBT practices” on religious grounds will be criminalised; that it will limit the work of mental-health professionals working with people questioning their sexuality or gender; and that it will prevent parents from discussing issues of sexuality and gender with their children.

Baroness Burt said that she did not seek to criminalise “open conversations”, only those practices with “a predetermined goal to change that person”. She referred to a meeting with the Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, in which Bishop Mullally reportedly said that it was important to put the “pastoral needs of the person first”.

On Wednesday, the Church of England published a briefing paper on conversion therapy, reflecting the Church’s response to a government consultation on banning such practices.

The Bishop of Bristol, the Rt Revd Vivienne Faull, and the Bishop of Guildford, the Rt Revd Andrew Watson, spoke in Friday’s debate.

Bishop Faull said she was aware of “horrific practices” that had taken place, including “physical punishment, counselling and prayer techniques akin to interrogation, [and] supposedly ‘curative’ rape” — all practices which should be outlawed, she said, and the victims of which “should be much better supported”.

She said that “the cultures which pervade many faith communities render those exploring their identity very vulnerable indeed to abuse,” and that she was “relieved that the Church of England is at last owning its homophobia and making some moves to change its culture and practice”, while expressing her wish that change would be “much faster and further”.

Bishop Faull also, however, expressed concern that groups who encourage LGBTQ Christians to live celibate lives, and seek to help them do so, would be at risk of legal action if a law banning conversion therapy is not carefully phrased.

She referred to he example of Living Out, a Christian organisation with headquarters in Bristol, which, she said, “supports LGBTQ adults who, exercising agency and autonomy and inspired by their interpretation of Christian faith, seek counselling to support celibate lives or marry someone of the opposite sex”.

Such groups needed a “safe space”, she said, and the definition of conversion therapy needed to be refined in order to “protect from harm while it continues to preserve our current liberties”.

Bishop Watson made a similar point regarding the need for precision in defining the practices that should be prohibited.

“The use of coercion to seek to alter the sexuality or gender identity of another person, whether medical, psychological, spiritual, or otherwise, is clearly an abhorrent abuse of power,” he said, but he warned against “promoting a world in which all right-minded people are expected to behave and even think alike — even in contested areas such as gender identity or the often complex world of bisexuality”.

He offered an example from his experience in parish ministry: a bisexual man came to him who was married to a woman, and wanted the Bishop to pray that he might “resist the temptation of cheating on his wife”.

Such prayers might fall under the ambit of conversion therapy, according to the current wording of the Bill, he suggested, as they might be regarded as being intended to “suppress a person’s expression of sexual orientation”.

Any Bill therefore needed to be “carefully written to ensure that basic freedoms are not unwittingly undermined in the process”, he concluded.

After four hours of debate, in which many similar concerns about the wording of the Bill were raised, Baroness Burt conceded the the Bill was “not well drafted. It was intentionally general, but it now needs a Committee Stage to put it right.”

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