GRAPPLING WITH LABOR’S ANTI-CONVERSION BILL: A CHALLENGE FOR RELIGIOUS CONSERVATIVES

Victorian Labor likes to boast that it’s the country’s most progressive government. The obverse of this reality, however, is that it has consistently enacted an agenda that collides with, and often encroaches upon, the concerns of traditionalists — especially those of a more religious bent.

The past six years of Premier Daniel Andrews’ government are replete with examples of such confrontations. Restrictions on pro-life protesters, forcing Catholic priests to break the confessional seal, euthanasia, removing CRE from school classrooms, or the introduction of the ‘Safe Schools’ initiative: each policy represents a victory for Labor’s rapidly advancing program of progressive thought, and a corresponding loss for the state’s diminishing band of religious, moral, and social conservatives.

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The latest skirmish in this smouldering culture war has been triggered by the state government’s proposed Change or Suppression Practices (Conversion) Prohibition Bill 2020. With its unwieldy title, the bill is designed to outlaw so-called ‘conversion therapy’ that seeks to change or supress a person’s same-sex orientation or gender identity. It is largely aimed at techniques grounded in religious ideology, and to that end, makes more than one reference to such things as to prayer-based practices. However, it appears that others — medical practitioners, counsellors, psychologists, and the like — would also be captured by the legislation. If it can be shown that certain efforts to elicit a change in someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity lead to serious physical or mental harm, the offender is liable to up to ten years in prison or thousands of dollars in fines.

Were the legislation seeking only to protect the vulnerable from manifestly coercive or injurious practices, Victorian government ministers would hear no objection from most conservative religious folk in the state. No mainstream faith group endorses the archaic and barbarous techniques that were once used to ‘cure’ people wrestling with same-sex attraction. Similarly, no church that isn’t already languishing on the fringes of society would defend their legitimacy. This isn’t to say that forcible or harmful conversion therapies have entirely died out — merely that they are so vanishingly rare that one could be forgiven for thinking the government is pushing on an open door. In any case, I think journalist Barney Zwartz is correct: whatever horrors occurred historically, nothing in present Victorian society can ‘justify legislation of this magnitude’.

But, of course, the aspirations of Premier Andrews and his colleagues are more ambitious, as suggested by scrutiny of the act’s articulated objects and intentions (a point to which I will return). Behind its bland, bureaucratic text lies an expansive project, which goes beyond the goal of shielding people from serious and demonstrable injury. Indeed, the bill leaves anyone but the most glassy-eyed activist with a battery of urgent questions about the practices captured by the bill’s wording, as well as implications for freedom of religion and conscience. These issues have featured most prominently in recent critical commentary.

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Consider the disturbingly vague language the legislation uses to proscribe certain conversion techniques. Some practices, like aversion or electro-shock therapy, are both clearly delimited and inherently objectionable. But caught in the bill’s drag-net is prayer, a common religio-spiritual discipline, and one that Christians exercise in a variety of contexts. Referring to ‘prayer-based practices’ (among other techniques), the text baldly promises serious punishment for demonstrable and ‘serious harm’ flowing from a person’s attempt to change or suppress another’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

Leave aside the notion of harm for a moment. How should prayer be construed in this context? What is its scope? Is the bill referring to a formal, twelve-step program grounded in systematic, scripted petitions, or something more informal and ad hoc? Suppose a minister of religion agrees to pray with a parishioner struggling with same-sex attraction. In the process, he entreats God to transform — indeed, ‘heal’ — that person in a manner consistent with orthodox Christian views of sex. Perhaps he asks God to give that person the wherewithal to remain celibate. Is this considered unlawful conduct? Does it fall under a prohibited attempt to ‘convert’ someone out of same-sex attraction? Several commentators have asked similar questions, but have been unable to satisfactorily answer them.

In all honesty, it’s hard to see how the bill wouldn’t capture such an example. In a statement that will worry religious conservatives, Jill Hennessey, the state’s (former) Attorney-General, said in a speech last month that prohibitions will be based on a broad definition of change or suppression practices’ (emphasis mine). The Explanatory Memorandum attached to the legislation also states that ‘informal practices’, including prayer, are covered by the definition. This is far removed from former government-funded psychiatric programs, or even the organized, pseudo-scientific ministries of now-defunct bodies like Exodus International. Such a capacious approach to the notion of conversion therapy would, it seems, encompass even a series of private, fleeting encounters between a pastor and a congregant seeking help for their same-sex attraction.

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It’s not simply that certain types of prayer may come in for censure; religious statements to the same effect seem to be prohibited, at least according to the relevant commentary. Once more, the Explanatory Memorandum is instructive, for it tells readers that ‘conversations with a community leader’ may well be in the legislation’s cross-hairs. In the same speech she delivered to parliament when tabling the bill, Jill Hennessey declared that the legislation is specifically designed to capture a pastor telling a same-sex attracted person that they are ‘broken’, and that they should ‘live a celibate life for the purpose of changing or suppressing their sexual orientation’. It’s not clear whether this means a pastor would have to explicitly try and change a person’s sexual orientation through the medium of celibacy, or whether encouragement to live chastely would itself constitute evidence of such an attempt.

The former attorney-general tried to re-assure people that such legislation would not infringe on one’s freedom of religion; ‘not captured’, she intoned, are statements from religious leaders that merely convey an interpretation of the relevant biblical teachings — suggesting, for example, that same-sex attraction is inconsistent with one’s faith. Yes, but pastors aren’t there to mechanically dispense information, like members of some religious advice bureau; they are charged with the sacred responsibility to teach, preach, urge, cajole, and exhort people to live holy and righteous lives before God. In the case of sexuality, orthodox Christians hold that outside of heterosexual marriage, celibacy is the only legitimate path. But that draws discussion back to the initial question, namely, whether the exhortation to practice chastity should be seen as a form of conversion therapy. That Jill Hennessey would mention celibacy in precisely this context — long the recommended recourse for the unmarried faithful, and a mainstay of Christian sexual ethics — is deeply troubling for those wanting to remain true to biblical teachings. 

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Setting these statements (as well as the questions they generate) within a wider frame of reference does little to temper the religious conservative’s disquiet. In the report that informed the government’s anti-conversion therapy bill, Preventing Harm, Promoting Justice, the authors explicitly classify certain therapeutic and theological models as forms of conversion therapy, even where a fundamental change of identity is neither sought nor recommended. For example, the report criticises the ‘welcoming not affirming’ approach adopted by many modern churches seeking to navigate the tension between fidelity to biblical teaching and compassion for those who are same-sex attracted or gender diverse. The authors appear dissatisfied with this approach, going so far as to single out the so-called ‘celibacy requirement’ for ongoing membership in such communities. It’s important to underscore this view, for two reasons: first, it clashes directly with the practical implications of a biblically orthodox position on sexuality (in a way that condemnation of stereotypical conversion therapies does not); and second, it supplies the framework for the government’s disturbingly ambiguous legislation. As with Jill Hennessey’s remarks, so with this report: if it is to function as the intellectual lodestar for determining what constitutes ‘conversion’ or ‘suppression’ practices, then religious conservatives have every reason to be alarmed.

It must also be emphasised that the concept of suppression is a contested one, in so far as debate continues on how widely it should be defined. For many LGBTIQ activists, there is an intrinsic connection between one’s sexual orientation and its expression; the one simply bleeds into the other. On this view, praying that someone be given the strength to live celibately — not change of orientation, but abstention from certain types of sexual behaviour — is ipso facto to induce the suppression of that person’s enduring romantic and sexual affections. If ministry of this kind is informed by the spirit of a verse like Matthew 5:28, that might simply make the effort to ‘suppress’ a person’s sexual orientation seem all the more egregious.

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To be sure, criminal prosecution will only be triggered if serious injury are generated by conversion or suppression practices. This would seem to preclude dignitary harm or deep offence. But as some commentators have noted, that hardly settles the matter. Suppose a person, struggling with their sexual orientation, decides to engage in acts of self-harm after a conversation with a religiously orthodox minister she perceived as distressing. Suppose, too, that this person attempted to commit suicide. Significant harm has obviously occurred, and the person who sought advice may well want to draw a link between those acts and the meeting(s) held with the pastor.

Is the minister liable? It’s extremely difficult to predict, given the apparent ‘looseness’ of the causal relationship between psychological distress and subsequent acts of self-injury. Still, the mere possibility — exploited, perhaps, by willing activist groups keen to make an example — leaves the unsuspecting minister in a rather precarious position. Compelled by his faith to at least encourage the individual to live chastely, he runs the risk of falling afoul of the legislation and being accused of causing serious, even long-lasting, injury. Moreover, the pastor cannot rest on the claim that the person sought him out of their own free volition, for the bill explicitly precludes consensual practices as a legitimate defence, even among adults (itself a serious impost on personal liberty). Even if such fears do not materialise, it’s likely that the legislation will have a chilling effect on the activities of pastors: cowed by the possibility of prosecution, or simply investigation, there’s every chance a minister will censor himself, truncating what he might otherwise see as vital Christian counsel. Indeed, the bill creates a concerningly large grey area, composed of possible topics and conversations of dubious legality; afraid of the potential consequences, the harried pastor may well avoid those pitfalls altogether. 

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By tabling this legislation, the government has arguably set the stage for future interference in what are ultimately private and personal religious practices (as Melbourne’s Catholic Archbishop, Peter Comensoli, remarked, what he prays for, and with whom, is no business of any government). This exceeds previous forms of Victorian Labor’s progressive activism: while many conservatives were upset when CRE was removed from school classrooms, it was still the case that Christians could freely practice their beliefs; the government’s decision, while representing a minor act of marginalisation, did not actively proscribe religious expression. The current bill, however, threatens to do exactly that, reaching into the realm of the sacred, which under a liberal democratic regime has traditionally been seen as verboten. Any intrusion into the religious sphere undercuts a long-recognized freedom, and violates deep-set principles against government meddling in something for which it has little competence.

For Victorian Labor, however, this may be the bearable cost of prosecuting its progressive agenda: instead of engaging with religious groups in a good-faith manner, the government has recently dismissed their concerns as thinly-veiled bigotry. To return to the act’s preamble, it seems reasonably apparent that Premier Andrews and his ministers are interested, not simply in protecting people from specific mental or physical harms, but in propagating a much broader narrative. Soothing assurances that LGBTIQ people aren’t ‘broken’, or the promised goal of ensuring that all people may live ‘authentically’ in a state that ‘welcomes’ them — regardless of identity or orientation — betoken the dramatic expansion of a government’s traditional remit. No longer is Victorian Labor a neutral arbiter of basic rights in a pluralistic society. Rather, Premier Andrews and his allies have consolidated the state’s position on one side of what are ultimately questions about anthropology: what is the human person? What is the relationship between the self and the body? Are maleness and femaleness tied to our embodied state? And just how are we to use our sexual capacities? It’s impossible, of course, to explore these issues in any depth here. Suffice it to say, having rejected all pretence to impartiality, the government now advertises itself as the standard-bearer, the vanguard, for a peculiarly modern understanding of human identity — one that is starkly at odds with the convictions of orthodox Christians and other metaphysical traditionalists.

People will, of course, laud the open expression of a person’s identity as a heartening example of societal evolution. Goodness knows that a mere generation ago, many LGBTIQ people were imprisoned by silence and opprobrium. The problem lies in the fact that under the present government, the Victorian state hasn’t merely arrogated to itself the power to constrain the free exercise of conscience and religion; it also touts its capacity to offer the balm of affirmation — inscribed into legislation, no less — as a surrogate therapist, advancing a contentious doctrine of what it means for human beings to live rightly in this world. It’s the triumph of the therapeutic in modern law, reflecting the extent to which government activity now revolves around validation of the psychological self as the primary locus of identity, value, and moral order. Buoyed by the authority their cause brings, Victorian Labor figures are set upon discharging their duties — even if that entails infringements upon those who are deemed to threaten this goal. Ironically for a government claiming to oppose ideology (in this case, of the religious kind), it is clearly driven by its own ideological commitments.  

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