A bill to ban conversion therapy in Australia has stirred up controversy, with religious leaders: some arguing that the proposed law limits religious freedom and others arguing it offers strong protections for LGBTQ persons.
At issue is language in the bill, introduced in the state of Victoria’s Parliament, that some interpret to mean that certain forms of prayer will be outlawed. According to The Age, the bill includes one illustration of a “change or suppression practice” as “a religious practice including but not limited to, a prayer-based practice or an exorcism.”
Archbishop Peter Comensoli of Melbourne released a statement saying that he “encourage[s] every action to protect people from harm,” and “A bill that protected people would have [his] full support.” But he feels that this bill “targets prayer, and appears to impose silence on people of faith from sharing their beliefs in an open, honest and faithful way.” Calling it an “overreach of the state,” the Archbishop strongly condemned the bill but had comparatively weak condemnations of the problem the bill attempts to address. The archbishop also criticized casting “conversion” in a negative light, saying “In faith communities, ‘conversion’ has a meaning of positive change, upholding human freedom and dignity.”
Crux further quoted Comensoli as saying:
““Most mainstream Christian churches reject coercive practices or activities that do harm to LGBT people, and we’re ready to work with government to find ways of ensuring that people are protected. But the bill goes well and truly beyond that.”
Bishop Shane Mackinlay of Sandhurst also commented on the bill. The Courier reported:
“‘I support the intent of preventing coercive and intrusive attempts to interfere with people’s free choice about themselves, their identity, their place in life, their place in society and their relationships,’ he said.
“But he echoed concerns from within the Catholic Church that aspects of the draft laws could be interpreted as an attempt to regulate the private prayers of individuals or the preaching of church doctrines and the scriptures.
“‘The government is, in fairness, saying that’s not their intention,’ Bishop Mackinlay said.
“‘I think what needs to happen is those assurances need to be written into the legislation about what is, and is not, intended.'”
One critic of the bill is Fr. Peter Joseph, the Archdiocese of Sydney’s chaplain for Courage, a Catholic ministry which promotes celibacy for lesbian and gay people. Joseph argued that he believes the bill would prevent homosexual persons from “praying with others for certain of their personal intentions.”
However, other faith leaders have publicly expressed their support of the bill. As Western Australia Today (WA Today) reported, Collins Street Baptist Church Pastor Simon Holt contested “the assertion that several church leaders have made in recent days – including Archbishop Comensoli – that they do not support ‘coercive’ conversion practices, but that including prayer in the legislation was a bridge too far.” Holt said:
“‘This seems to me to demonstrate an extraordinary lack of self awareness. While it is true that many churches have never sanctioned the more extreme practices of aversion or shock therapy, their consistent messaging that those people of a homosexual orientation are broken and must suppress, deny and repent of their sexuality has been far more consistently damaging and over such a long period of time for so many of its own people.'”
WA Today reported that Marion Maddox, a recognized expert on the intersection of religion and politics, referred to Australia’s church sex abuse crisis, noting:
“‘We have the diehard view that what goes on behind church walls should be outside the jurisdiction of the state, and then we have the other view: that what goes on inside church walls can cause enormous harm.'”
WA Today provided further information about the bill:
“Under the proposed changes, anyone found trying to suppress or change another person’s sexuality or gender identity faces up to 10 years’ jail or fines of almost $10,000 if it can be proved beyond reasonable doubt that their actions caused serious injury.
“The government insists that sermons and other prayer-based practices that do not specifically target an individual will not be captured in the legislation.
“However, if for example, a same-sex attracted person sought spiritual guidance from a faith leader who then tried to suppress or change their sexuality through regular prayer sessions or conversion ‘therapy’, a jail term or fine could be imposed for any negligent physical or psychological injury caused.”
The controversy surrounding the bill illustrates the complications of the intersections of faith and sexuality in the public sphere. But Catholic principles instruct us to protect the dignity of the most vulnerable among us, so the question for Catholics cannot be just about religious freedom. The debate for Catholics should not be whether to end the harm of attempted “conversion” therapy, but how to do so. Will the church have a serious reckoning with even those harms which occur within its own walls?
—Madeline Foley, New Ways Ministry, December 23, 2020