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Australian ‘conversion therapy’ ban has dangerous flaws, say religious leaders

Parliament House for the state of Victoria Parliament House for the state of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia./ Stock photo via Shutterstock

A proposed ban on “conversion therapy” for sexual orientation or gender identity in Australia’s Victoria state is far too broad and could target normal prayer and conversations between children and parents, Catholic bishops and Muslim leaders warned this week.

“Unfortunately, this bill doesn’t just ban outdated and insidious practices of coercion and harm, which we firmly reject,” said the Feb. 1 letter. “The bill also criminalizes conversation between children and parents, interferes with sound professional advice, and silences ministers of religion from providing personal attention for individuals freely seeking pastoral care for complex personal situations.”

The letter to Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews was signed by Archbishop Peter Comensoli of Melbourne, the other Catholic bishops of the dioceses and eparchies of Victoria state, and Mohamed Mohideen, president of the Islamic Council of Victoria. It appeared in several newspaper advertisements.

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“At present the bill appears to target people of faith in an unprecedented way, puts limits on ordinary conversations in families, and legislates for what prayer is legal and what prayer is not,” the joint Catholic-Muslim letter continued. “Various amendments can be made to rescue the bill from taking Victoria into strange new territory, in which prayerful advice and guidance, freely sought by one adult from another, is criminalized.”

The Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Bill bars any therapy that attempts to change or suppress a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity, the Australian Associated Press reports. The proposal includes in its definition of conversion therapy “carrying out a religious practice including but not limited to, a prayer-based practice, a deliverance practice or an exorcism.”

The Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission will investigate alleged conversion practices. The bill is expected to become law after passage in the upper house of the state parliament, the Labor Party-controlled Victorian Legislative Council.

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A similar law was passed in Queensland state in 2020, but only covered healthcare settings.The Victoria proposal coves religious settings as well.

Those who put others through conversion practices would face criminal penalties for injury, up to 10 years in jail. Someone who sends a person out of state to avoid the laws would face criminal sanctions and a fine of up to $7,700.

The Catholic-Muslim letter said the bill uses vague definitions, “ill-conceived concepts of faith and conversation,” and “scientifically and medically flawed approaches.”

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“It places arbitrary limitations on parents, families and people of faith,” the statement continued. “People change for all kinds of reasons, and should feel free to do so, whether it be on matters of personal identity, gender, sexuality, family association, or religion. Contrary to its intent, this bill obstructs people’s freedom by limiting, restricting and removing options for their good, thereby creating undesirable possibilities of harm.”

There are medical and scientific skeptics of some pro-LGBT assumptions behind gender theory. For most young people who experience feelings of gender dysphoria, the experience is in fact temporary, and a non-heterosexual orientation is not as fixed as sometimes claimed, according to a 2016 review of research published in The New Atlantis Journal by Dr. Lawrence S. Mayer, Ph.D. and Dr. Paul R. McHugh, M.D.

As many as 80% of men who reported same-sex attraction as adolescents no longer do so as adults, with “similar but less striking” results for women, said the authors.

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They also noted that adults who undergo sex reassignment surgeries continue to show a high risk in mental health.

Purported gender transition has also drawn legal scrutiny. In December 2020 the U.K.’s high court ruled that children are unlikely to be mature enough to give informed consent to medical treatment involving drugs that delay puberty. The case was brought by claimants including Keira Bell, a woman who for a time identified as male. She received puberty blockers at age 16 after just three one-hour appointments, then received hormonal treatments at age 17. She had a double mastectomy at the age of 20.

She now questions the medical treatment and refers to the treatments she received as “a tortuous and unnecessary path that is permanent and life-changing.”

In some parts of the world, legislators have proposed bills to bar gender transition for children due to concerns such as these.

Samantha Ratnam, the Victorian Green Party Leader, said many arguments against the Victoria bill were “inherently homophobic and wrong.” She appeared to question whether good faith opposition to the law is possible, saying “It’s hard to fathom that we're even debating this matter in this parliament because it implies that there are valid arguments on either side of this debate when clearly there aren’t.”

The view was echoed by Victoria Attorney-General Jaclyn Symes.

“LGBT people are not ‘broken’ and they do not need to be ‘fixed’. These views won’t be tolerated in Victoria, and neither will change or suppression practices,” she said.

Symes said the bill’s backers “consulted closely with survivors, LGBTIQ+ organizations and religious organizations on the legislation to make sure it is effective in stamping out abhorrent change and suppression practices once and for all.”

She added that the proposal strikes the “right balance” between its goals and “respecting the rights to freedom of speech and freedom of religion.”

However, Adel Salman, vice president of the Islamic Council of Victoria, said there was no consultation with religious groups in a way that could have avoided problems.

“There’s overreach there that impinges on the rights of individuals to practice their faith freely, for people to seek guidance, for parents to parent,” he said of the bill.

Shadow Attorney-General Edward O'Donohue, part of the Liberal/National Coalition, cited concerns from the medical community that the proposal’s provisions would compromise psychiatric and psychotherapy practices.

“As it currently stands, the bill would mean medical professionals would be unable to provide full and frank professional opinions to their patients and could risk up to 10 years' imprisonment for doing so,” O’Donohue said, calling for a pause on the bill.

Victoria state has about 6.7 million people and is the second-most populous state in Australia. Catholics make up about 23% of the population, according to 2016 census data. About 48% of its overall population is Christian, while 32% profess no religion.

More than 30 religious leaders, including Jewish and Hindu leaders, have voiced opposition to the bill, the newspaper The Age reports.

Bishop Brad Billings of the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne also voiced concern, telling the Australian Associated Press that the bill “has some potentially serious unintended consequences in respect to fundamental human rights such as the freedom of speech, the protection of religious belief and freedom of conscience.”

“It potentially criminalizes the provision of pastoral care and may limit the ability of parents to guide their children,” he warned.


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