Peers reveal their illiberal intentions for conversion therapy law

15, March 2024

We take another look at the House of Lords debate on ‘conversion therapy’, this time focusing on some of the worrying comments by those supporting a new law. You can read more here: The ‘jellyfish’ let loose in the House of Lords.

Closing the debate on her own Bill, Baroness Burt confessed she had, from the start, been aware of the heavy criticism about to befall it. It was, she admitted “not well drafted”.

That explains why she started by anticipating the many concerns that would arise.

For just one example, Lady Burt was eager to tell the House that her Bill will not “tell people what to think or what to say”. But independent legal advice says that her Bill risks criminalising parents providing guidance to gender-confused children and Christians teaching biblical sexual ethics.

As good as her assurances may have sounded, they simply didn’t live up to the reality of her Bill. Lord Forsyth soon took her up on it: “In her speech, she said there were all kinds of understandings of provisions, but it is not there in the Bill, and she is asking us to support it.”

It became quickly apparent from the Bill’s supporters that, though they paid lip service to freedom of religion and speech, they only approved of such freedom if it was on their own terms. They used so many ‘provided that’ and ‘if’ clauses that it would leave you wondering what freedom is actually left.

Let’s start with conversations. Many peers expressed concern that advice offered in good faith could be considered conversion therapy if it fails to affirm a person’s chosen ‘gender identity’.

This seemed to be confirmed when, despite her claims that people would not be told “what to say”, Lady Burt spoke of the “sorts of open conversations” that will not be criminalised. Evidently, she thinks some conversations would be.

These permissible “open conversations” were described by Baroness Featherstone as those that do not “advocate for or against anything”; those that allow the person to “find their own way forward, without bias, prejudice or pre-conceived rights or wrongs, and without the influence of religion, societal norms or anything else”.

That doesn’t leave much room for ordinary conversation, does it? Does she really mean that only purely academic comments that describe, but have no particular moral values, should be allowed? Surely no one speaks of gender and sexuality on those terms.

This notion that we should approach advice in a vacuum is clearly absurd. If it was really the right approach, could these Peers ever pass new laws? Isn’t it their role to make judgements about right and wrong? One might conclude that, actually, those calling for a new law want to force everyone else to go along with their judgements, and not open up freedom for people to have different views.

Baroness Butler-Sloss was more open about wanting to shut down certain conversations, saying: “if there is an assumption that it is wrong or a sin to be LGBT+, and the discussion has the intention of coercing the person into a different point of view, it has gone too far and would fall within the offence in this Bill—rightly, in my view.”

No one will agree with coercing someone, and there are laws against it. The Christian viewpoint she seems to be speaking about would never endorse coercion. This makes it all the more likely that Baroness Butler-Sloss was speaking in a far more repressive way – describing religious believers who encourage or urge others to uphold teachings she disagrees with as acting in a coercive way.

The argument often put forward by proponents of a Bill is that anyone choosing not to act upon their sexual desires or ‘gender identity’ has been coerced by those around them. No one is capable of forming their own opinions, they would have us believe, unless they are the same opinions as the activists hold.

But self-professed ‘liberal champion’ Baroness Burt did not propose stopping with the regulation of conversations. After warm words to say how much of a “cornerstone” religious freedom is to “any liberal society”, Lady Burt set out her thoughts on what she termed “good prayer”.

“Good prayer”, she informs us, puts “the pastoral needs of the person first, accepting them for what they are, and not trying to push one’s own beliefs of who the person ought to be”.

That might sound reasonable to her as a patron of Humanists UK. But it ignores that Christians believe entirely that ‘what we are’ – no matter who we are – is sinful. Christians firmly believe that we are not the person we ought to be, and that we need God to transform us to more closely resemble his Son. Putting the ‘pastoral needs of the person first’ means precisely the opposite of what Baroness Burt claims.

Such comments are reminiscent of the guidance on ‘conversion therapy’ in the Australian State of Victoria. Official guidance produced by its enforcement agency has outlined “acceptable” and “prohibited” forms of prayer. Acceptable prayers should reassure a person they are “perfect the way they are” and not talk about a person’s “need to repent”. Any mention of sin seems to be off the table.

Most people would consider such an interference with a person’s conversation with God repressive. Not so, it seems, for Baroness Barker who claims “there are times and occasions when prayer has been weaponised as a political tool”, which is perhaps a surprising take for a member of the atheistic All-Party Humanist group.

Then there is the issue of parenting. Those calling for a new law have been keen to play down serious concerns that it would prevent vital discussion between parents and their children about topics like sex and gender.

Lady Butler-Sloss claimed that “there is no right to impose one’s beliefs on another person, including one’s children”. ‘Impose’ is an unfortunate choice of words in this context, but it is a very good thing for parents to bring up their children in accordance with their beliefs; which is recognised as a human right in international law.

The European Convention on Human Rights is very clear on this point. It says that the state “shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions”. Parents can’t force their children to believe something, but they can certainly require them to abide by the tenets of a particular religion until they are legally old enough to make choices for themselves.

You can see how dangerous the language of those supporting a ban can be. If parents encouraging their children to follow their example and beliefs is being described as ‘conversion therapy’, it is no wonder leading human rights lawyer Jason Coppel KC concluded that Lady Burt’s Bill would likely breach protected rights.

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