Let Us Pray Response to Westminster Consultation on banning conversion therapy
The Westminster Government’s consultation on their plans to ban 'conversion therapy' closed on 4th February 2022. Here’s the text of our response.
Do you agree or disagree that the Government should intervene to end conversion therapy in principle?
Neither agree nor disagree
Why do you think this?
Let Us Pray has deep concerns about the potential unintended consequences of a carelessly worded legal ban on conversion therapy. We represent the interests of hundreds of thousands of mainstream Christians – who have never carried out ‘conversion therapy’ in their lives – who fear that aspects of prayer, preaching and pastoral care within their churches, and of their parenting within their homes, could be criminalised.
Coercion is wrong. Abuses such as electroshock therapy and ‘corrective rape’ appal all right-thinking people. But these things are caught under existing legislation and medical regulation.
Insofar as the Government’s goal is to do more to ensure people in the UK are protected from such abuses, no one would disagree. However, in order to legislate in a way which is targeted at real abuses, there must be a credible evidence base. Anecdote is not enough, especially if those anecdotes come from people who see the new law as a means to attack those whose theology they don’t agree with, rather than simply a means of protecting individuals from actual abuse.
Questions have repeatedly been raised about the evidence base for a ban, most recently by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), and the consultation document itself goes some way towards acknowledging this problem. The Government relies on a Government Equalities Office survey and a survey by a leading campaigner on this issue, Jayne Ozanne. A Cambridge University data scientist has critiqued these surveys and he observes:
“…the inadequacies in survey design mean that neither… is close to being commensurate with reputable empirical studies in the social sciences. Both surveys suffer from three crucial methodological flaws:
- Significant ambiguities with respect to the definition of CT
- Value-laden terminology
- Non-representative sampling
“These methodological flaws are interlocking and co-dependent, compounding the problematic nature of this research. In sum, it is difficult to see how any social scientist could support the findings and conclusions made by this research in good conscience.”
Given that these inadequacies have now been highlighted by no less a body than the EHRC, we urge the Government to take the time to undertake proper research to remedy the problem. We recognise that activists such as Jayne Ozanne constantly complain that the Government is ‘delaying’ and that the GEO wants the legislation for this ban in Parliament for June’s “Safe to be me” conference. But these ought to be irrelevant considerations for a government. The duty of a government is to properly understand the problem it is being asked to tackle in order to craft legislation which is fit for purpose. Conversations with activists are not a substitute for research. Rushing legislation to get a round of applause at a conference, or to avoid being called names by an activist, is unworthy of any government. And it risks leading to ill-considered laws which trample on fundamental freedoms and face challenges in the courts.
This failure to undertake proper research is reflected in the fact that, despite being nearly 40 pages long, the consultation document is seriously unclear about exactly what is expected to fall within the criminal law definition of ‘conversion therapy’. The document is vague and internally contradictory. It offers some limited assurances about not outlawing ordinary church life and parenting. But the mode of operation of the ban which the consultation proposes to adopt – in so far as it is possible to understand it, given the lack of detail – appears wide open to the risk that it will go far beyond preventing activity that is genuinely abusive and coercive. It seems entirely possible that, rather than just preventing genuinely harmful practices, a ban might repress religious freedom, stifle legitimate free speech and restrict the fundamental freedom of parents to raise their children in accordance with their beliefs (religious or otherwise).
OUTLAWING CHURCH PRACTICES
Many of the groups campaigning for a ban openly admit that they want ordinary church practices to be outlawed. They often do this by exploiting society’s shared wish to protect people from harm, and by weaponising concerns about suicide and mental health and accusing their theological opponents. Because they disagree with mainstream Christian sexual ethics and have not been able to win the argument within the church by persuasion they now want the Government to help them settle their theological scores. Jayne Ozanne has called, specifically, for ‘gentle, non-coercive prayer’ to be banned. In one interview with a Christian publication she was asked:
Q: “Some people might be surprised to hear you say that the more ‘extreme’ kinds of gay conversion therapy is – to quote your words – “just as damaging” – as well-meaning prayer. Is that what you’re saying?
Admitting that she wishes to outlaw “well-meaning prayer” she answered:
A: “Christians are told by their leaders that what they are is sinful and their desires, which are innate, are ungodly – that level of internalised pressure is huge. So yeah, there is no such thing as a simple, little, loving prayer because it comes from a place of saying that who you are is unacceptable.”
The interview went on:
Q: “But you have people saying: “my deep religious conviction, as a same-sex attracted Christian, is to live…” (what they would call) “a celibate life.” And you’re saying prayers in that regard are to be made illegal?”
A: “Yes, because it is damaging and lives are at stake.”
Ozanne told the Scottish Parliament’s equalities committee exactly what kind of prayer she thinks should be legal and what kind she thinks should be banned:
“the sort of prayer that creates an open and safe place into which people can go and where any outcome is acceptable and right is good and should be encouraged. However, when there is a pre-determined purpose I think that must be banned”.
The Bible clearly teaches that all people sin against God and will face his judgement. It also teaches that God’s own Son, Jesus Christ, died on the cross in order to pay the price for sin so that we could be forgiven and reconciled to God and experience his love.
Explaining this to others does not mean that Christians are rejecting those people as “unacceptable”. That is a perverse interpretation of their actions. Christians know that Christ reserved some of his strongest condemnation for those who look down on other people. When Christians explain this teaching to fellow Christians, their own children, or church visitors, their purpose is to encourage people to embrace it and to find a relationship with God through Christ that not only saves them from judgement but fills their life, and their eternity, with joy. Similarly, when they pray with people, their hope is that God will give the person spiritual help to pursue that relationship with him. There is very definitely a “pre-determined purpose”.
If the Government were to agree with Ozanne that this kind of teaching amounts to “saying that who you are is unacceptable” and must be outlawed, then why stop at the Church’s engagement with lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people? Why not ban the Church from teaching anyone that they need forgiveness?
Many activists have told stories of asking for prayer and support which they say were lovingly provided, but which they now retrospectively desire to have criminalised. But this is not abuse. It is not coercion. It is just believing in, and living out, a different view of the world. It is a protected manifestation of belief under the terms of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).
The consultation document pledges not to ban “private prayer” but some suggest this means praying alone. This would make it a meaningless assurance since no one would ever report themselves to the police for praying for themselves. The Government must confirm that this applies to instances where a person asks someone else to pray with them.
We are concerned that the Government may, inadvertently or otherwise, accede to activists’ demands through legislating in an over-broad and imprecise way. It must not put a law on the statute book which would empower people who oppose the mainstream Christian sexual ethic to manufacture situations in which they can punish those who hold to it.
The foremost problem is one of definition. What is ‘conversion therapy’? The Government has given several suggestions. Paragraph 10 of the consultation document describes ‘conversion therapy’ as “an attempt to cure [a person] of being LGBT” (taken from the Government’s National LGBT Survey 2017). Paragraph 42 of the document describes it as “talking therapy… with the intention of changing [a person’s] sexual orientation or changing them to or from being transgender”. But these descriptions fall far short of the precise definition that is required for good criminal law. It is a basic principle of UK law that there must be certainty in the law so that a person can know whether his actions are lawful or not. This is especially important in criminal law where the penalties can be severe. The Government must provide a full legal definition if we are to be able to decide whether or not its proposals are proportionate, wise, just and necessary.
Legal advice provided by leading human rights lawyer Jason Coppel QC is clear that the definitions of conversion therapy proposed in Australia and Canada, and the proposals of the ‘Ban Conversion Therapy’ (BCT) campaign group, would contravene rights conferred by the ECHR. The Government cannot, and must not, follow those examples.
The consultation document says that the Government will protect “the vital values that underpin our democratic society, such as freedom of speech, freedom of belief and privacy”. This is a welcome statement of intention. But the document gives almost no detail to allow us to assess whether the legislation will achieve this intention.
The terminology in this area is fraught with difficulty. There is little academic basis for the term ‘conversion therapy’, which is generally situated within activist rhetoric. As a result, the extent of what is counted as conversion therapy is often unclear, even in the very limited literature that exists on the subject. For example, the so-called Independent Forensic Expert Group, which campaigns on conversion therapy, regards ‘conversion therapy’ as something so serious it breaches the ECHR Article 3 rights to be free of torture and degrading treatment – but clarifies that this is “when it is conducted forcibly on individuals or without their consent”. Many of the stories told by UK activists of well-meaning prayer from friends which they themselves requested clearly fall far short of this. The International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims explains that torture or degrading treatment means “beatings, rape, forced nudity, force-feeding, isolation and confinement, deprivation of food, forced medication, verbal abuse, humiliation, and electrocution.” But members of the BCT campaign group, who have also said that ‘conversion therapy is torture’, use the examples of private prayer and pastoral support. It is obvious to any rational person that these things are not the same. This shows the inconsistency between the definitions used by different groups.
The terminology is also hampered by its close religious connotations. ‘Conversion’ is a religious term. It relates to the Christian Gospel message: the good news of salvation for all who trust in Jesus. The word ‘conversion’ is closely associated with the language of ‘repentance’ – which means to turn away from sin. This is the heart of the Christian message. We understand that some may disagree with the Bible’s sexual ethic – the teaching that sexual conduct should only take place within a marriage between a man and a woman. And we recognise this can be objectionable to LGB people. And we recognise that trans people object to the Bible’s teaching that maleness and femaleness are given and cannot be changed. But urging people to embrace these religious teachings is not an attempt to coerce or ‘cure’ someone. It is certainly not a ‘therapy’.
Many activists are exploiting the ambiguous terminology to advance their own particular theological agenda. They want churches to be limited in what they can teach and practise. The Government should not be naïve to this intention and should recognise the need to legislate in a religiously neutral way that does not hand such people a stick with which to beat their theological opponents. It is not the State’s place to intervene in matters of doctrinal dispute.
We urge the Government to stop using the word “conversion” in this context because it reflects ignorance and hostility towards religious belief and towards the Christian faith in particular.
The recent legislation in Victoria has led to its Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission (EOHRC) telling Christians that they face criminal penalties in some circumstances, where pastoral conversations tell someone “they are broken and should live a celibate life”. As we keep seeking to explain, Christians will often appeal to the Bible’s teaching that all people are sinful, without exception, and must embrace Christ’s teachings for their lives. The language of brokenness is one way in which many Christians speak about universal human sinfulness (though this language is not exclusive to the Church). But in the Victorian context this can be wrongly interpreted as an attempt to change or suppress a person’s sexuality or gender identity. The Victorian EOHRC then suggests that ‘convey[ing] the Bible’s teachings’ would be permitted under the law, but not if there is any ‘intention to change’. But it is fundamental to religious belief that its teachings do change a person’s life, otherwise what is the point? In the Christian tradition, those who claim to embrace the Christian faith but do not allow it to change their lives are warned that their faith is not genuine. To suggest you can only state what the Bible teaches but must not invite your listener to embrace it is extremely religiously repressive.
The Ban Conversion Therapy campaign group’s ‘Cooper Report’ calls for the term ‘conversion therapy’ to be widened to ‘conversion practices’. We accept that ‘therapy’ is a wholly inappropriate term when the actions in question really amount to abuse. But the word ‘practices’ is even more problematic. ‘Conversion practices’ sounds even more like the real target is the ordinary work of churches. Isn’t an evangelistic event where people are invited to come to faith in Christ “a conversion practice”? In the Christian faith, conversion is foundational to all church practices. There is a dangerous risk of overreach into the everyday work of churches.
We urge the Government to:
- Publish, for consultation, a precise criminal law definition of conversion therapy;
- Provide proper evidence as the basis for its intervention with methodologically sound research;
- Illustrate its intentions with clear, worked examples of genuine abuse and coercion that are not already illegal and which will be made illegal under its proposals.
To what extent do you support, or not support, the Government's proposal for addressing physical acts of conversion therapy?
Prefer not to say
Why do you think this?
We agree with the Government that no new law is required to outlaw physical acts of abuse because they are already illegal.
The Government considers that delivering talking therapy with the intention of changing a person’s sexual orientation or changing them from being transgender or to being transgender either to someone who is under 18, or to someone who is 18 or over and who has not consented or lacks the capacity to do so should be considered a criminal offence. The consultation document describes proposals to introduce new criminal law that will capture this. How far do you agree or disagree with this?
Prefer not to say
How far do you agree or disagree with the penalties being proposed?
Prefer not to say
Do you think that these proposals miss anything?
If yes, can you tell us what you think we have missed?
Christians believe that all people have inherent dignity and worth and are to be loved. We are therefore strongly opposed to abuse of any kind. Any new criminal law must have a high, clear threshold that outlaws only actions which are truly coercive and abusive. But if existing laws already capture this abusive behaviour it is not clear why a new law is needed. The consultation document does not explain in any detail what actions are currently legal that deserve to be illegal and how they will be prevented by this law. It has a serious lack of detail on the definitions and scope of any proposed offence.
Many campaigners have said they want a ban to cover the ordinary work of churches, including prayer, preaching, pastoral care and parenting. One campaigner said “'Spiritual guidance’ is really just religious speak for conversion therapy”; one group said conversion therapy includes “teachings pulled from religious texts, prayer, spiritual discipline”. One activist said that “gentle, non-coercive prayer” should not be allowed, and another said “talk of ‘forgiveness’ and ‘redemption’” is a “dog-whistle for conversion therapy”.
The Government rightly says its intention is not to outlaw the everyday work of churches. But it has not explained which practices it does intend to capture that are not already illegal. Contrary to the accusations of some, we do not want a carve-out or ‘loophole’ in the new offence to protect religious practices. Our religious freedoms are far too important to rely on a ‘loophole’– or indeed be derided as such. But the Government has not explained how it will bring in a law without impinging on religious liberty. Furthermore, the term ‘talking therapy’ is also ill-defined. The Government has said it does not intend to capture ‘pure speech acts’, but has said little about persuasion, encouragement, or codes of conduct/belief – all of which form part of all religious communities and fall within protected religious freedoms.
We note that Schedules 9 and 23 of the Equality Act specifically protect the ability of religious organisations to uphold their teachings on sexual ethics in their employment practices and church membership practices. It is possible that a disciplinary conversation with a member of staff who is straying from Christian teaching on sexual ethics or sex, or the removal of church membership from a person who rejects these teachings, will be protected by equality law but criminalised under the conversion therapy ban. This is clearly ridiculous. The exemptions are essential to protect fundamental religious rights under Articles 9 and 11 of the ECHR. Those same rights must not be undermined by a carelessly worded conversion therapy ban.
INTERVENING ON RELIGIOUS FREEDOM
Many of those campaigning for a broad ban have an ideological axe to grind. Some were members of churches, but later came to regret their involvement.
There are parallels here with politics. Those who leave a political party or movement will often come to have very strong feelings of revulsion against views they previously held dear. Some may feel they were misled, others will even call those ideas ‘damaging’. Everyone should of course have the freedom to change their mind and to try to persuade others to do the same. But legislators would never countenance intervening in party politics with a ban on ‘converting’ from one view to another.
The question of consent is also challenging. Those who attend churches and seek pastoral support are undoubtedly consenting. People willingly attend and ask for assistance. But it would be extraordinarily difficult to demonstrate formal consent in all such circumstances. People cannot be expected to sign consent forms before being prayed for. ‘Pastoral care’ doesn’t take place in a formal ‘therapy’ setting. Conversations on the way into or out of worship services form a large part of this care. Church leaders will often not know what subjects will be brought up on a house visit or what they will be asked to pray for. It would be deeply repressive if a legal obligation was put on Christians to demonstrate medical-style consent for everyday conversations and prayers. It is especially concerning that the consequence of such a law would also be the denial of pastoral care and prayer for any under-18 (who cannot therefore legally consent). This risks outlawing huge swathes of churches’ work with young people. Churches in the UK have contact with hundreds of thousands of children and young people every week. A conversion therapy ban must not jeopardise this good work. If the law is badly-drafted, mainstream teaching for under-18s on appropriate sexual behaviour for teenagers, or on the roles of men and women, could lead to a prosecution if any in attendance are, or later consider themselves to be, lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans.
A broad ban risks criminalising good Christian parents too. Parents have a right to bring up their children in accordance with their beliefs. That position is protected in human rights law. The Supreme Court has said that “within limits, families must be left to bring up their children in their own way”. It would be deeply repressive if the law made it more difficult for parents to pass on their values to their children.
Charity trustees are the people who are responsible for governing a charity and directing how it is managed and run. The consultation document describes proposals whereby anyone found guilty of carrying out conversion therapy will have the case against them for being disqualified from serving as a trustee at any charity strengthened. To what extent do you agree or disagree with this approach?
Prefer not to say
Why do you think this?
Someone who has been convicted of a serious criminal offence is unsuitable to act as a charity trustee and the consultation says this would remain unchanged under any new ban. But a badly drafted criminal conversion therapy ban would result in some Christians being unjustly convicted. This would risk a ‘conversion therapy’ ban becoming a means for activists to destabilise churches and Christian organisations, which depend on their charitable status.
There is a duty on public authorities to consider or think about how their policies or decisions affect people who are protected under the Equality Act 2010. Do you have any evidence of the equalities impacts of any proposals set out in the consultation?
If yes, can you provide us with details of this evidence, including where possible, any references to publications?
The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has publicly warned the Government of potential “unintended consequences” of its proposals for a conversion therapy ban. It has recognised the possibility of such legislation cutting across religious freedoms, saying: “The legislation must be carefully drafted in order… to avoid criminalising mainstream religious practice such as preaching, teaching and praying about sexual ethics.”
Legal advice from senior human rights lawyer Jason Coppel QC asserts that a ban would violate multiple European Convention rights if it used the wrong definition of ‘conversion therapy’.
The equality impact for Christians, both for the ordinary work of churches and for Christian parents, is potentially enormous. Coppel explains that a ban could engage ECHR Article 8 – Right to respect for private and family life; Article 9 – Freedom of thought, conscience and religion; Article 10 – Freedom of expression; and Article 11 – Freedom of assembly and association.
The same legal advice also explored the possibility of restrictions to Articles 8, 9, 10 and 11 being justified on the basis of protecting Article 3 rights on torture and inhuman and degrading treatment (IDT). It concludes: “Conduct must be of a high degree of severity in order to be classified as torture or IDT… The vast majority of cases in which IDT has been found have involved intentional abuse or inhuman/degrading conditions in contexts involving an imbalance of power and restricted liberty (e.g. in prisons, mental hospitals, and/or where the protagonist is a member of the police or security forces).” As a result the advice does “not see that any of the scenarios would engage Article 3 ECHR”, and “it is likely that any conduct which would comprise IDT… would already be prohibited by the criminal law”.
 Equality and Human Rights Commission, Response submitted to UK Government consultation: Banning conversion therapy, January 2022, para. 2
 Banning Conversion Therapy: Government Consultation, Government Equalities Office, 29 October 2021, paras 11, 15, 16
 Guardian online, 9 June 2021, see https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/jun/09/conversion-practices-church-of-england-bishop-backs-prosecution as at 3 February 2022
 ‘Jayne Ozanne: The Christian campaigner explains why she wants to ban “hate prayer”’, Premier Christianity, 1 December 2021, see https://www.premierchristianity.com/interviews/jayne-ozanne-the-christian-campaigner-explains-why-she-wants-to-ban-hate-prayer/5807.article as at 4 February 2022
 Report on Petition PE1817: End Conversion Therapy, Scottish Parliament Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee, 25 January 2022, SP Paper 88, para. 68
 Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Act 2021
 Bill C-6. NB The Canadian Parliament subsequently passed Bill C-4 which is nearly identical to Bill C-6.
 Independent Forensic Expert Group, ‘Statement on Conversion Therapy’, Torture, Volume 30(1), 2020, pages 66-78
 Loc cit
 Oral evidence: The LGBT Advisory Panel, Women’s and Equalities Committee, HC 163, 19 May 2021; Matthew Hyndman tweet, 22 July 2020, see https://twitter.com/thatmattyh/status/1285868755550076928 as at 4 February 2022; Blair Anderson tweet, 4 March 2021, see https://twitter.com/blairanderson35/status/1367411473455206400 as at 4 February 2022
 ‘Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Act 2021: For professionals, institutions, families and communities’, Victorian Equal Opportunities & Human Rights Commission, see https://www.humanrights.vic.gov.au/legal-and-policy/victorias-human-rights-laws/change-or-suppression-conversion-practices-prohibition-act-2021/faqs-for-professionals-institutions-and-communities/ as at 3 February 2022
 Loc cit
 James 2:14-26
 Gay Times, 17 March 2021, see http://www.gaytimes.co.uk/originals/ban-conversion-therapy-co-founder-whats-more-threatening-than-telling-someone-they-will-spend-an-eternity-in-hell as at 4 February 2022
 ‘About Conversion Therapy’, The Trevor Project, see https://web.archive.org/web/20210706045938/https://www.thetrevorproject.org/get-involved/trevor-advocacy/50-bills-50-states/about-conversion-therapy/ [archived] as at 4 February 2022
 Guardian online, 9 June 2021, see https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/jun/09/conversion-practices-church-of-england-bishop-backs-prosecution as at 3 February 2022
 Guardian online, 16 December 2020, see http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2020/dec/16/i-used-to-love-christingle-until-i-discovered-what-my-church-thought-of-trans-people as at 4 February 2022
 Equality and Human Rights Commission, Response submitted to UK Government consultation: Banning conversion therapy, January 2022, para. 26
 Ibid, para. 3
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