Victorian bill slammed as worst attack on believers to date
A proposed law to ban so-called conversion therapy in Victoria is the most egregious attack on religious freedom the country has ever seen, according to faith leaders and legal experts.
If passed, the bill tabled in parliament on 25 November would criminalise any practices that seek to change or suppress a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
However, the bill is so broad in its definitions that it could crush any Christian expression of human sexuality, capturing homilists, scripture teachers and parents with penalties reaching $200,000 or up to 10 years in jail for individuals.
“I don’t think it should ever be a crime to pray” -Professor Michael Quinlan
Any religious practice, including praying for a person at their request in relation to issues concerning their sexual orientation or gender, is mentioned in the draft bill as a criminal offence. Exempted are activities relating to gender transitioning from a person’s biological sex to a new gender identity.
If passed, the law would empower Victoria’s Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission to respond to reports of change or suppression practices from any person, not only those directly involved, as well as launch its own investigations.
“In our view, the bill is a direct attack on religion beliefs, and in particular Christianity, and will target those who hold to traditional convictions on sexual orientation and gender identity issues,” said John Steenhoff, managing director of the Human Rights Law Alliance.
“It is far too broad and will legislate extreme ideology, particularly around gender ideology.
“On first review, the bill is the worst of the recent State legislative efforts that deal with so-called conversion therapy bans and will be dangerous for religious freedom.
“The bill imposes draconian limits and criminal sanctions on what Australians can think and speak about contentious issues of sexuality and gender. [It] is thinly veiled ideological compulsion.”
Professor Michael Quinlan, dean of the School of Law, Sydney, at the University of Notre Dame, said Victoria was taking a “very draconian and authoritarian approach which no government should take”.
“While New South Wales considers introducing protections for religious believers from discrimination Victoria is looking to introduce legislation which, among other things, criminalises prayer,” Professor Quinlan said.
“But the proposed Victorian legislation is not only an affront to freedom of religion it is also an affront to freedom of choice. I don’t think it should ever be a crime to pray. I also think that this legislation assumes that everyone knows their sexual identity or sexual orientation and it is a fixed and inherent attribute for everyone.
“This entirely ignores the fact that many people in our society are confused about these matters. The proposed law also falsely assumes that traditional religious morality can never be of assistance to anyone in such circumstances.”
Australian Christian Lobby managing director Martin Iles slammed the draft law as “by far the worst and most flagrant attack on basic freedom this country has ever seen”.
It was a lie to say that the bill is a response to the existence of coercion and abuse in this area, Mr Iles said. “Those practices are not happening in Australia, as already noted by other state governments,” he said.
“The bill digs up relics of the past as excuse to ban innocent practices like the teaching of Scripture, friends praying for each other, and parents affirming their kids’ biology, to name a few.
“Its main effect will be to ban such benign things as Scripture, prayer, voluntary support groups, and a host of other things. The bill is an insult to the notions of tolerance and diversity.”
ACL Victorian spokesperson Jasmine Yuen said that ACL “does not support coercive practices directed at LGBT-attracted people”, however it had not seen any evidence that these practices occur in modern Australia.
“The bill digs up relics of the past as excuse to ban innocent practices like the teaching of Scripture, friends praying for each other, and parents affirming their kids’ biology, to name a few” -Martin Iles
“ACL is also concerned that the bill could criminalise highly qualified, professional counselling for children with gender dysphoria or adults with LGBT attraction,” Ms Yuen said, calling for careful deliberation on the religious freedom, health and other adverse impacts of the bill.
Father Peter Joseph, the chaplain for Courage in Sydney, an independent Catholic ministry for people with same sex attraction, said the proposed law is “modern-day religious persecution of homosexual persons, even prohibiting them from praying with others for certain of their personal intentions”.
He said he did not support any coercive practices and that current laws adequately deal with harassment, bullying and intimidation by “over-zealous counsellors or ministers”.
“We must congratulate the Victorian government for reaching new heights and depths of totalitarian control over citizens’ behaviour,” Fr Joseph said. “Not even Stalin himself tried to outlaw private prayer practices, such as this bill aims to do.
“[It] would specifically require a priest or psychologist not to oppose an operation to change from one sex to another. So there must be an absolute freedom to have an operation involving mutilation – but an absolute prohibition of praying with someone who wants an inner change. This bill is run by an ideology not by a desire to protect people.”
Advocacy group LGB Alliance Australia expressed concerns that the draft laws would disadvantage same-sex attracted people as well as children and teenagers who do not conform to gender stereotypes.
Spokeswoman Kat Karena told media that the proposed ban followed an international pattern of confusing mostly historical gay conversion therapy with the issue of how to help young people and children who experience gender dysphoria.
Advocate for abuse survivors and former gay activist James Parker called for more community consultation before the bill is considered. He said that childhood trauma led him to destructive behaviours as an adult and that he only began to experience healing through methods of therapy and prayer that would likely come under the definition of banned practices in the draft bill.
“People need to be given the opportunity to make their stories known to a Standing Committee which takes public submissions,” Mr Parker said. “To fail to do so, to suppress practices which bring about positive change for people in pain, is criminal.”