Should Christians be concerned about the introduction of a so-called ‘conversion therapy’ ban in Northern Ireland? What exactly is ‘conversion therapy’? And what impact has the recent debate in the Northern Irish Assembly had upon this issue?
In this brief article I wish to address these questions and outline some ways in which Christians can appropriately respond to the latest developments at Stormont. The conversion therapy debate is highly significant because this kind of legislation could place serious restrictions on the ways that Christians are able to practice their faith whilst serving and supporting LGBT people.
The Proposal to Ban Conversion Therapy in the UK
Last week a motion was passed in the Northern Irish Assembly calling for a ban on gay conversion therapy "in all its forms". The motion, which is non-binding, passed by 59 votes to 24. As a result, Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey said her department had started work to inform the drafting of legislation to ban conversion therapy.
A DUP amendment, tabled by MLAs Pam Cameron and Robin Newton, proposed that "legitimate religious activities" should not constitute conversion therapy. It said these activities included preaching, prayer and pastoral support, and argued they "must be protected". This amendment was, however, rejected.
The debate concerning a proposed ‘conversion therapy’ ban is not limited to Northern Ireland but is also currently being considered by the UK government. In 2018, with the publication of its LGBT Action Plan, the British Government stated that it would “bring forward proposals to end the practice of conversion therapy in the UK”. Both legislative and non-legislative options were to be explored, and it was claimed that the aim of these proposed measures would be to protect people from harm or violence. In July 2020, Prime Minister Boris Johnson reaffirmed his commitment to end “gay conversion therapy”, describing it as "absolutely abhorrent" and stating that it had “no place in this country".
Why is a Conversion Therapy Ban Controversial?
There is a broad consensus that harmful and coercive ‘therapies’ for LGBT individuals such as electro-shock aversion therapy and corrective rape should be banned. Evangelical Alliance and the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, among others, have expressed a desire to see an end to these kinds of abusive and cruel practices. As Christians, we should be unreservedly against coercive and harmful ‘therapies’ of any kind. So why is the proposal of a conversion therapy ban controversial?
The main problem is that the term ‘conversion therapy’ has been so broadly defined (or rather ill-defined) that it could extend to pastoral prayer, counselling and support for LGBT individuals. A blanket ban, which does not allow for exceptions on religious grounds, would affect leaders and adherents of many religious faiths, including Orthodox Jews, Muslims, and Christians. Therefore the idea that it is only ‘evangelical Christians’ who have an interest in this debate is inaccurate: it is fundamentally a matter of religious freedom, which is protected under Article 9 of the European Declaration on Human Rights. This is exactly what the proposed amendment by the DUP sought to protect, and yet it was rejected.
Concern was raised in the NI Assembly debate about the effect on the regular practice of Christian teaching, counselling and prayer which is based upon the Bible. Jim Allister, the leader of Traditional Unionist Voice, said that LGBT activists wish to “criminalise preaching in accordance with the sexual ethics that are set forth in holy scripture…They want to criminalise praying. Where there has been legislation, that’s exactly what happened.”
One example of where this has occurred recently is in the state of Victoria, Australia, where a ‘conversion therapy ban’ now criminalises any kind of religious counselling of those with same-sex attraction. The penalty for those found guilty of breaching the Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Act 2021 is a prison sentence of up to ten years or a fine of up to $10,000. There is therefore a serious risk that if similar legislation were introduced in the UK that Christian counselling and prayer for certain individuals would also be criminalised.
This is why the introduction of a ‘conversion therapy ban’ is so problematic. As the Christian pastor Ed Shaw, who is himself same-sex attracted, says,
“There is a real danger that badly worded legislation could stop a same-sex attracted or gay man like me from accessing professional counselling, pastoral care, support groups, biblical teaching, and prayer as I seek to live out my sexuality in the light of my Christian convictions. Just as failing to ban coercive attempts would be harmful, so would banning access to these forms of support that are important for people like me.”
Even secular organisations such as LGB Alliance have highlighted concerns around the introduction of conversion therapy legislation which uses vague and imprecise definitions:
“While simply banning conversion therapy sounds like a good idea, creating new legislation – especially with imprecise language – will not #EndConversionTherapy. There are existing laws against most of what we would traditionally understand to be conversion therapy and these need to be implemented.”
The motion passed in NI last week is “non-binding”, which means that there will be no immediate changes to the law regarding conversion therapy. However, this vote is still very influential in that it signifies the political will of the NI Assembly to implement some kind of conversion therapy legislation in the future.
How Should We Respond?
The most important thing we can do in response is to seek the Lord and His will in prayer:
We are called to pray for “all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.” (1 Timothy 2:2). Ask the Lord to grant wisdom, insight and guidance to our political leaders as they make decisions so that truly harmful and coercive practices are banned whilst religious freedom is protected.
Pray that the Church would boldly proclaim the gospel and teach the whole counsel of God, whilst demonstrating compassion to members of the LGBT community who have been hurt in the past.
2. Understand the Issues
Be informed about the issues surrounding the conversion therapy debate, and understand what the ramifications may be for you as a Christian parent, youth leader, church leader or employer if future legislation is introduced without safeguards for freedom of religious expression.
The purpose of being informed is threefold:
First, it will be helpful when speaking to your MPs and MLAs as you share your concerns about the importance of religious freedom being upheld in this country. If you wish to write to your local representative concerning this issue, consider using this letter as a template.
Second, it will aid you as you seek to disciple and support those in your church struggling with their sexual identity.
Third, it will support your evangelism efforts as you seek to faithfully and winsomely communicate the good news of the gospel and the truth of God’s word to those who don’t yet know Jesus.
None of us can predict what kind of conversion therapy legislation may be introduced in the future, but we must prepare to be faithful to Christ. We cannot change our gospel and Scripture shaped approach to pastoral care and discipleship whatever the outcome of this process. If the government seeks to ban pastoral prayer around these issues, or to limit the biblical exhortation to align our beliefs, desires and behaviours with the will of God, then we must be prepared to obey God rather than man.
For further advice and resources on how to live a faithful and fulfilling life as a celibate, same-sex attracted Christian, visit www.livingout.org
Michael Shaw is a Deputy Director of the Centre for Christianity in Society.
 BBC News, “Gay conversion ban: Therapy is a 'humiliating and harmful practice’”, 20 April 2021.
 Government Equalities Office, LGBT Action Plan, 2018, p.15.
 BBC News, “Boris Johnson pledges ban on ’gay conversion therapy’”, 20 July 2020.
 Evangelical Alliance, “Letter to the Prime Minister regarding calls to end conversion therapy”, (15 March 2021); and David Bruce, “Conversion Therapy Debate: PCI Respond” (20 April 2021).
 Equality and Human Rights Commission, “The Human Rights Act, Article 9: Freedom of thought, belief and religion”.
 Jim Allister, NI Assembly Plenary, 20 April 2021 (www.niassembly.gov.uk).
 The Guardian, “Victoria bans gay conversion practices after 12-hour debate”, 4 February 2021.
 Ed Shaw, “My New Interest in Human Rights”, www.livingout.org, April 2021.
 LGB Alliance, “End Conversion Therapy”, https://lgballiance.org.uk/endconversiontherapy/