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Government to take firmer stance on religious ‘conversion therapy’

Mike Freer, the Minister for Equalities, has confirmed that the Government’s proposed ban on so-called ‘conversion therapy’ will cover both practices that take place in religious settings and those that are carried out by ministers of religion. LGBT Humanists has previously called on the Government to close loopholes in its proposals on religious conversion therapy. Today it has welcomed this confirmation, but questions remain as to whether this applies to adults who appear to have ‘consented’, or to practices aimed at suppression rather than conversion.

In a letter to the Jayne Ozanne Foundation, shared with LGBT Humanists, the Minister confirmed that,

‘[T]he ban will apply regardless of the setting in which it is carried out, and regardless of who carries it out. Under our proposals individuals will still be able to access support and counsel from religious leaders. However, religious practices carried out with the intention of changing a person’s sexual orientation or changing them from or to being transgender will be captured. We do not consider practices carried out with this intent to be everyday religious practices.’

This letter confirms that all practices that have the predetermined aim of changing a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity will fall under this ban. This is a step forwards as it makes a clear distinction between conversion therapy and legitimate discussion of religious teachings on these aspects of identity.

However, it still leaves potential loopholes, on the issues of suppression, celibacy, and supposed ‘consent’, within which religious conversion therapy could still operate. The Government’s consultation stated under the proposed ban,

‘an adult who wants to be supported to be celibate will be free to do so, parents will remain able to raise their children with the values of their faith, and simply expressing the teachings of a religion will not constitute conversion therapy.’

Firstly, this definition of conversion therapy only includes practices that aim to ‘change’ someone’s sexuality or gender identity. It omits practices that focus on suppression of that identity or encouraging denial through celibacy. Conversion therapy that is based on suppression or celibacy by defintion has a pre-determined aim and therefore should be separated from everyday religious practices and banned, as other forms of religious converison therapy are. Moreover, this ban on religious conversion therapy does not extend to those over 18 who have ‘consented’ to such therapy. As these practices have no medical or scientific efficacy and the harms caused to participants are well known, it is not possible for an adult to give free and informed consent. Therefore it should not be a defence in law that victims appear to have consented.

Conversion therapy is harmful pseudoscience. Such practices have been widely rejected by the medical community. There is no evidence that they work. On the contrary, they cause significant damage to the mental health of those who experience them. Yet conversion therapy is still widely practiced, especially within religious settings. The UK Government’s 2018 National LGBT Survey showed that 7% of LGBT people had undergone or been offered such practices. Of those who had undergone conversion therapy 51% reported that it had been conducted by a religious group or in a religious setting. Such activities can include exorcisms and forced prayer. Conversion therapy legitimises homophobic, biphobic, and transphobic attitudes by falsely equating LGBT identities to a pathology that can be fixed or cured.

Humanists are strong advocates for freedom of religion or belief, but only so long as it does no harm to others. It is within religious settings that the most damaging types of conversion therapy, such as exorcisms and forced prayer, occur. When people are experiencing such extreme distress over their sexual orientation or gender identity, they should be met with person-centred, therapeutically well-grounded support. They should not face coercive, medically worthless practices that seek to push them in a particular direction.

LGBT Humanists Coordinator Chris Lynch commented, 

‘We are pleased that the Government has heeded our call and that of others to address the omission of religious settings from its proposed ban. However there are still many questions and omissions remaining in these proposals that will leave the door open for practitioners to continue to operate, endangering the health of LGBT people. We urge the Government to close these loopholes.’

Notes:

For further comment or information, media should contact Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson at press@humanists.uk or phone 020 7324 3072 or 07534 248 596.

Read Mike Freer MP’s letter. 

Read LGBT Humanists’ response to the consultation.

Read the Government’s proposals.

Read more about our work on conversion therapy.

Humanists UK is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people. Powered by 100,000 members and supporters, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. We provide ceremonies, pastoral care, education, and support services benefitting over a million people every year and our campaigns advance humanist thinking on ethical issues, human rights, and equal treatment for all.

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