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Criminalising Christians

November 2021 | by Simon Calvert

Activists demand the most religiously repressive law the UK has seen in centuries

The idea of inflicting electro-shock treatment on gay people to try to change their sexuality is so repugnant that no rational or decent person would defend it.

That’s what most of us think of when people talk about banning “conversion therapy”. It means outlawing abusive practices that have long since been discredited and almost certainly no longer take place here in the UK.

Jayne Ozanne
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But when some people talk about conversion therapy, they have a vastly more expansive — and oppressive — definition in mind. Jayne Ozanne, the leading activist on this issue, says conversion therapy includes “prayer that focuses on ensuring someone conforms to a ‘norm’”.

When asked, “What does conversion therapy actually look like today in the UK…?” she states:

“…there are many churches on a Sunday, if you went forward and asked for prayer, because you were struggling with same-sex attraction, that people would come alongside and start praying…”

She clarifies that this means prayer that has a “one way directional outcome” that “you have to be heterosexual or chaste”. This all sounds an awful lot like “she wants to ban prayer that upholds mainstream Christian teaching on sexual ethics.

And she wants it to be a criminal offence:

“We have to learn to ban conversion therapy so that …we give a very clear message to perpetrators, that this will not be tolerated and they will have a criminal record.”

Just to be absolutely clear about how far she’s prepared to go, here’s what she said when one of her backers, the Bishop of Manchester, said he did not think the ban should go so far as to include “gentle non-coercive prayer”:

“I would strongly refute 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 and causes immeasurable harm, as it comes from a place — no matter how well meaning — that says who you are is unacceptable and wrong.

“We know that this occurs in numerous C of E churches and many other faith settings — indeed there are evangelical organisations that openly advocate it.”

No one can say she isn’t being upfront about what she wants. She wants to prosecute church ministers for praying the “wrong” kind of prayer and appears to envisage lots of cases in C of E and evangelical churches. But this approach to religion sounds more like Communist China than a liberal Western democracy.

Incredibly, the BBC has fallen for this narrative. In an article about conversion therapy, they blithely assert:

“While some violent practices which may be classed as conversion therapy, such as ‘corrective rape’, are already covered by existing criminal offences, many religious practices, such as ‘group prayer’, are not.”

A lot of people — including those who support banning conversion therapy — would be appalled to hear that “praying with someone is somehow on the same spectrum as raping them.

The organisation I work for, The Christian Institute, instructed a QC to consider how the ordinary work of churches could be affected if Jayne Ozanne got the kind of ban she’s been arguing for. We put to him the wording of actual legislation from other countries, including an Australian law that specifically lists “prayer” as a form of conversion therapy.

The QC, Jason Coppel, said if the UK were to legislate in this way, then prayer, preaching, pastoral advice — and even Christian parenting — could all be caught. Taking a so-called non-affirming approach could lead to a prosecution for conversion therapy.

Crucially, Coppel said this would breach the human rights of those who hold to the Christian sexual ethic. It would put the UK in breach of its obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights.

Thankfully, the UK Government seems to recognise this. It says it

will introduce a ban that does not outlaw prayer and that respects basic religious freedoms. But activists like Ozanne are unhappy. They insist there must be no room for the religious freedom of those in traditional churches. Having failed to win the theological argument by persuasion, they now want the criminal law to help them settle their scores.

Much of the media is on their side. How often have you heard any nuance in the discussions around conversion therapy? With few exceptions, activists are given a free ride to demand the most religiously repressive law the UK has seen in centuries.

That’s why we’ve launched the “Let Us Pray” campaign. We’re obviously not opposed to protecting people from dangerous pseudo-medical practices. We just want freedom to pray in accordance with mainstream Christian beliefs.

Most people recognise that those two things are very, very different.

LGBT people are very welcome in our churches. But “Christ never compromised on right and wrong, and we must follow his example.

If you support the basic religious freedom to hold and practice the beliefs of the Christian faith, join our campaign today.

This article was first published in The Critic Magazine.