Sunday, February 21, 2021

Australia: Victoria’s ‘Anti-Conversion’ Law Passes in Upper House

-- Royal assent secured; law will come into effect on 16 Feb 2022.

The Victorian state government’s Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practises Prohibition Bill passed in the Legislative Council on the evening of 4 February 2021.  

Despite a lengthy debate, the world’s most repressive LGBTQ+ anti-conversion bill passed without amendments, 27 votes in favour and 9 against. The nine opposing votes came from 7 of 12 crossbenchers, and 2 of 11 opposition members. 

While the Bill’s focus is sexual orientation and gender identity, its similarity to religious anti-conversion laws in Hindu nationalist India and throughout the Muslim world is remarkable. In much the same way, Victoria’s anti-conversion law will ensure that LGBTQ+ identity is essentially a one-way street and procuring conversions is banned. 

If Victoria continues along this trajectory then the next step may well be a law against “blasphemy” (to criminalise criticism of LGBTQ+ ideology) and/or the mandatory registration of state-approved, ideologically compliant churches and clergy.

Text of Bill (pdf)
Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Act 2021 

Excerpt: (from pages 7-8)

Meaning of change or suppression practice 

(1) In this Act, a change or suppression practice means a practice or conduct directed towards a person, whether with or without the person's consent— 

     (a) on the basis of the person's sexual orientation or gender identity; and 

     (b) for the purpose of— 

          (i) changing or suppressing the sexual orientation or gender identity of the person; or 

          (ii) inducing the person to change or suppress their sexual orientation or gender identity.

(2) For the purposes of subsection (1), a practice or conduct is not a change or suppression practice if it— (a) is supportive of or affirms a person’s gender identity or sexual orientation . . .

(3) For the purposes of subsection (1), a practice includes, but is not limited to the following— 

     (a) providing a psychiatry or psychotherapy consultation, treatment or therapy, or any other similar consultation, treatment or therapy; 

     (b) carrying out a religious practice, including but not limited to, a prayer based practice, a deliverance practice or an exorcism; 

     (c) giving a person a referral for the purposes of a change or suppression practice being directed towards the person. 

(4) For the purposes of subsection (1), a practice or conduct may be directed towards a person remotely (including online) or in person.

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For further background and analysis see:
Victoria, Australia: the church of LGBTIQ+’s war against ‘apostasy’
By Elizabeth Kendal, Religious Liberty Monitoring, 26 January 2021.
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That the Bill would be approved was all but certain. Holding 18 seats in the 40 seat Upper House, the ruling Labor government only needed the votes of three crossbenchers to secure passage of the Bill. This was all but guaranteed, with the Bill receiving strong support from crossbenchers Samantha Ratnam of the Greens, Fiona Patton of the Reason Party (formerly known as the Sex Party), and the Animal Justice Party’s Andy Meddick, the proud father of two transgender children (a son who is now a daughter and a daughter who is now a son). 

On 16 February, the Victorian governor the Honourable Linda Dessau AC, gave the Bill her royal assent. The Bill will come into effect on 16 February 2022. 

Once the law is enacted, anyone found trying to suppress or change another person’s sexuality or gender identity will face a fine of up to $10,000 and/or a prison term of up to 10 years if it can be proved beyond reasonable doubt that their actions caused serious “serious injury” as defined by section 15 of the Crimes Act 1958: i.e. “an injury [to physical or mental health] (including the cumulative effect of more than one injury) that endangers life; or is substantial or protracted.”   

The Family Violence Protection Act will now be amended to make “conversion therapy” a form of domestic violence. 

BEFORE THE VOTE

In December 2020, former deputy Prime Minister of Australia, John Anderson took to twitter to express his concerns about the Bill. “A law before the Victorian parliament seeking to outlaw parental, therapeutic or religious discussions on issues of sexuality and gender is the biggest threat to our democratic freedoms in Australia’s entire legislative history.”  

A long list of organisations also criticised the Bill, including the Law Institute of Victoria, Australian Medical Association, Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists,  Victorian Women’s Guild, Melbourne Catholic Archdiocese, Islamic Council of Victoria, and the Presbyterian Church of Victoria. 

Law Institute president Tania Wolff said their members were concerned that the bill “may impose limitations on conversations between children and their parents or other family or caregivers on the issue of gender identity or sexual orientation”. (The Australian, 4 Feb

Medical professionals expressed concern that the Bill's vague wording, broad scope and harsh penalties could see health professionals fined and/or jailed for giving professional advice that led to a patient choosing not to undergo permanent medical procedures to transition gender. However, Victorian Health Minister Martin Foley dismissed these concerns, describing them as “misplaced” (The Australian, 3 Feb).

In an open letter to Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews, Victoria’s Catholic bishops and the President of the Islamic Council of Victoria noted that the bill risks criminalising conversations between children and parents, interfering with sound professional advice, and silencing ministers of religion from assisting some individuals who freely seek pastoral care.

“Unfortunately, this bill doesn’t just ban out-dated and insidious practices of coercion and harm, which we firmly reject,” the letter states. “It includes ill-conceived concepts of faith and conversation, vague definitions, and scientifically and medically flawed approaches. It places arbitrary limitations on parents, families and people of faith.”

The Presbyterian Church of Victoria’s “Church and Nation” committee described the legislation as “a solution in search of a problem”. 

From the Amnesty International Australia graphic:
"Conversion Practices in Australia".
(see RLM 26 Jan 2021)

We might also describe it as a “weapon”, purpose built for “lawfare” against “informal religious practices” that promote notions of “sexual sin” that are “harmful to LGBTQA+ people”, along with the “false ideology that their sexual orientation, gender identity or gender and sexual expression can be changed or suppressed.” 

See: What are Conversion Practices? 
Amnesty International Australia
22 Dec 2020 

As noted by Church and Nation: “The research used for the ‘whole of government LGBTIQ+ strategy’ was heavily skewed. The data was based almost entirely on personal surveys which measure each LGBTIQ+ respondent’s feelings or perceptions that other people treated them with hate or discriminated against them, and their subjective opinion that the perceived hate or discrimination was based on LGBTIQ+ prejudice. There was no indication of any analysis to ensure that their perceptions of “hate or discrimination” were correct, nor was there any indication of any analysis that any discriminatory behaviour was based on LGBTIQ+ prejudice as opposed to any other prejudice.

“There is no evidence that harmful ‘aversion therapy’ has existed in Australia for decades.” 

See: Conversion Therapy Ban, Victoria
URGENT CALL TO ACTION
from the Presbyterian Church of Victoria's Church and Nation committee.
-- includes links to the Victorian Government’s own publications: Whole of Government LGBTQI+ Strategy and Discussion paper on Conversion Therapy Ban legislation.

Only two opposition members – MPs Bev McArthur and Bernie Finn – defied their leader to vote against the Bill. Mr Finn told parliament that while he supported the general principle of banning gay conversion therapy, he could not abide the “bad parts of the bill”. (The Australian, 4 Feb

“This bill is an attack on basic freedoms,’ he said, ‘on freedoms of choice, free speech, freedom of assembly and an attack on freedom of religion . . .  If this bill was just what the government said it is [i.e. a law to protect LGBTQ persons from coercive, abusive or involuntary psychological or spiritual practices], there wouldn’t be a problem. But it’s not, it’s a lot more than that. This in its own way is an omnibus bill, and they’ve got a very, very nasty habit of doing this to people, and to the parliament, of putting bills up which are in part acceptable, and in other parts appalling, and this is one of them.” 

In a 31 January 2021 article for the Spectator Australia, crossbencher David Limbrick (Liberal Democrats) – who voted against the Bill – slammed the Bill as “shameful”.

“I have approached this legislation with an open mind – I am not a religious conservative – and sat through many meetings with stakeholders from all sides of the argument. 

“This idea that evil religious people are waiting in the shadows to deny people choices about their own sexuality is an offensive caricature, not just to faith leaders, but to millions of people quietly practising their religions.  

“What’s worse is that there are undertones of anti-religious bigotry. Anyone who thinks this particular brand of bigotry is better than any other kind is kidding themselves.”

AFTER THE VOTE

After the vote, Baptist pastor and blogger Murray Campbell gave voice to the question many Victorians would now be asking: “How can we respond when a Government makes illegal practices that have been part of Christian religion since the beginning of the Church and have their foundation in the teaching and example of Jesus Christ? 

“To be very clear,” Campbell explains, “I am not talking about aversion practices and non-consensual activity that stems from pseudo-science and bad theology. Church leaders including myself have repeatedly spoken against such things and believe they have no place in our churches . . .” 

However, “Among other things, the Conversion Practices Bill criminalises prayer and conversation where one person aims to persuade another that pursuing certain sexual activity or change is not the best course of action. A prayer for sexual abstinence can be considered ‘suppression’ and therefore illegal. Sermons are not targeted in this Bill, although the recently resigned Attorney General, Jill Hennessy, explained in the Parliament that sermons may be included at a later date.” 

What’s more, Campbell reports, “During tonight’s debate, one member of the Legislative Council [Ms Bath] asked the Attorney General [Ms Symes], ‘How will the Government up-skill ministers and pastors so that they know where the line is, [and] what they can and cannot say to people about sexual orientation and gender identity?’ (my [Campbell’s] paraphrase of the question). 

“What a revealing question! The Attorney General indicated that education materials will be made available. In other words, religious people must defer to the Government’s doctrine.”

See: Victoria Bans Conversion Practices Despite Significant Flaws in the Bill
by Murray Campbell, 4 February 2021  

Regarding the answer from Victorian Attorney General Ms Jaclyn Symes MLC, here is the quote from Hansard (p282):  “. . . when this bill is passed, there will be a 12-month implementation period. VEOHRC [Victoria Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission] will be providing education, materials and advice to religious organisations . . .” 

THE WAY FORWARD

As for the way forward, the Moderator-General of the Presbyterian Church of Australia, Rev. Dr. Peter Barnes, issued a statement on the website of the Presbyterian Church of Australia, encouraging the congregations of the Presbyterian Church of Australia not to be deterred from the obligation to proclaim “the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:26-27).”

“We are obliged before God,” he writes, “to preach all that He has revealed to us, whether law or gospel, and to do so in a spirit of love and truth.

“There is nothing unique in such legislation. When King Darius exceeded his God-given authority, Daniel did ‘as he had done previously’ (Dan. 6:10). 

“It is our task to keep on keeping on, to proclaim and to live out so far as we can the gospel of Christ which has been entrusted to us.”

AMEN

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Elizabeth Kendal is an international religious liberty analyst and advocate. She serves as Director of Advocacy at Canberra-based Christian Faith and Freedom (CFF) and is an Adjunct Research Fellow at the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at Melbourne School of Theology.

She has authored two books: Turn Back the Battle: Isaiah Speaks to Christians Today (Deror Books, Melbourne, Australia, Dec 2012) which offers a Biblical response to persecution and existential threat; and After Saturday Comes Sunday: Understanding the Christian Crisis in the Middle East (Wipf and Stock, Eugene, OR, USA, June 2016).

See www.ElizabethKendal.com