Conversion therapy law should not criminalise Christians: Presbyterian Church in Ireland

21, June 2024

By James Kennedy

A new law on ‘conversion therapy’ “shouldn’t criminalise ministers, church workers and parents” the Presbyterian Church in Ireland’s (PCI) General Assembly was told yesterday.

Revd Daniel Kane, Convener of the denomination’s Council for Public Affairs was addressing the annual gathering of church ministers and representative elders.

Raising issues of concern to the denomination, he explained that laws on assisted suicide, hate crime and conversion therapy pose a significant threat.

“We fear there is a grave risk”

Revd Daniel Kane said the passing of a non-binding motion brought to the Northern Ireland Parliament last month is a “cause for concern”. It calls on Stormont’s Communities Minister to bring forward a new law on ‘conversion practices’. He explained:

"We fear there is a grave risk of such future legislation straying into the freedoms we have of proclaiming the uniqueness of Christ and freedom to practice our faith. The term conversion therapy continues to be a wide, ill-defined, umbrella term, covering all kinds of abusive practices which are largely already illegal.”

He continued: "As a church, we are on public record expressing our opposition to such practices. But some campaigners, however, want to go much further and criminalise repentance, as well as preaching, prayer, pastoral care and even parenting that fails to endorse the rights of gender self-determination.

"We are clear, that any future legislation shouldn’t criminalise ministers, church workers and parents as they walk beside those who struggle with their sexuality, pastorally and prayerfully.”

“an unhelpful term”

PCI has spoken out on the issue before. Revd Dr David Bruce, then Moderator of the denomination, opposed a similar motion brought before Stormont in 2021, which sought legislation to “ban conversion therapy in all its forms”.

Revd Dr Bruce said: “Conversion therapy is an unhelpful term which is defined differently by different people.” He explained: “Attempts to end same sex attraction by using drug treatments to limit and/or reverse sexual desire, or ‘aversion therapies’ such as electric shock treatment, (all of which have been sanctioned in state-run institutions in decades past), are utterly and entirely wrong.”

He continued: “I must ask in reference to today’s debate, what does the motion’s catch-all phrase, ‘in all its forms’ mean?” Why should a new law be so broad it even criminalises Christian ministers and youth leaders for praying and talking with people “about living the Christian life”? he asked.

He concluded: “In any forthcoming legislation regarding ‘Conversion Therapy’, Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights needs to be carefully considered, as it provides for freedom of thought, conscience and the practice and observance of religion… Legislation which prevents a minister or other leader fulfilling their pastoral duties responsibly and well, ought to be rejected.”

“ought to be rejected”

PCI also submitted a response to the Westminster Government when it consulted on new legislation in 2022. PCI’s Council for Public Affairs said:

“Clearly teaching the Christian faith, including an understanding of the context of human relationships and human sexuality on the basis of an understanding of the Christian scriptures, is an important part of what we would call ‘discipleship’ – that is the practical outworking of this in our lives and choices.”

“Thresholds to prove coercion must be rigorous to prevent against spurious allegations, and the creation of a chilling effect for any Christian involved in pastoral care and discipleship.”

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See also: Inside the chamber: a closer look at the ‘conversion therapy’ debate at Stormont

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