BANNING ‘conversion therapy’ which aims to change sexual orientation or gender identity unites the UK’s main political parties. The issue at Westminster isn’t ‘Will there be a ban?’ but ‘How far will the ban go?’
Whether you are supportive or sceptical, this question is important. Will the ban be a focused attempt to protect people from dangerous pseudo-medical procedures? Or will it be a broad attack on traditional Christianity?
The Ban Conversion Therapy (BCT) campaign makes no secret of wanting ordinary church activities such as prayer to be brought within the ambit of a conversion therapy ban. They specifically want to outlaw ‘gentle non-coercive prayer’.
This emerged in a disagreement between BCT co-chair Jayne Ozanne and a supporter of her campaign, the Bishop of Manchester. Whilst blithely assenting to the general principle of prosecuting prayer, the bishop suggested there should be an exception for ‘gentle non-coercive prayer’.
Here’s how the Guardian reported his remarks:
‘[The bishop said] “Where activity has harmed someone, the person who has caused the harm should face prosecution.” That activity should include prayer aimed at changing someone’s sexual orientation, he added. He said he was not referring to “gentle non-coercive prayer, but where there is a level of power imbalance and a level of force”.’
Ozanne, a former government LGBT adviser, hit back. According to the Guardian, she said: ‘I would strongly refute [sic] that “gentle non-coercive prayer” should be allowed. All prayer that seeks to change or suppress someone’s innate sexuality or gender identity is deeply damaging . . . no matter how well-meaning . . . [it] says who you are is unacceptable and wrong.’
A fair-minded person might observe that Christianity has rather a lot to say about what is ‘wrong’, and not just in relation to sex. Do the words of the Lord’s Prayer ‘Forgive us our sins’ not suggest that there is something unacceptable and wrong in all of us?
But this is the point. BCT’s battle is deeply theological. These activists from the aggressively liberal wing of the church want laws – criminal laws no less – to punish those who hold different views from them.
The idea of criminalising prayer, especially ‘gentle non-coercive prayer’, should alarm anyone who believes in freedom.
In any event, it would violate the human rights of believers. This is confirmed by a legal opinion from Jason Coppel QC. He says a conversion therapy ban encompassing ordinary prayer ‘would be likely to violate Convention [European Convention on Human Rights] rights’.
Coppel points out that the Courts have consistently regarded Christian beliefs on sexuality as protected by the Convention, concluding:‘These beliefs must be treated by the State with neutrality and impartiality.’
The Ban Conversion Therapy campaign, however, is trying to persuade the State to treat these beliefs with partiality and prejudice. Matthew Hyndman, co-founder of the campaign, was happy to go on the record with this eye-catching demand: ‘The pernicious power of prayer must be dealt with.’
Some politicians are falling in line with this narrative. Referring to a conversion therapy ban in Australia which explicitly outlaws prayer, Conservative MP Alicia Kearns told the BBC: ‘The model that’s been passed in Victoria is a good one.’ Kearns even listed ‘prayer’ in the same breath as ‘electroshocks’ and ‘’corrective’ rape’.
So the threat is real.
In Britain we worked out centuries ago that prosecuting people for praying ‘the wrong kind of prayer’ was oppressive, counter-productive and wrong.
MPs and peers will get to vote on the terms of a conversion therapy ban in 2022. Let’s hope they have a better grasp of history than the Ban Conversion Therapy campaign.