The Age has run another opinion piece about the Victorian Government’s Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Bill 2020. This op-ed is designed to counter concerns being articulated by a growing number of religious leaders and legal experts.
The article is written by La Trobe University’s Dr Timothy W. Jones. Dr Jones was the lead author of Preventing Harm, Promoting Justice (2018). Far from The Age op-ed coming from a place of impartiality, Dr Jones’ is heavily invested in the success of the Bill. His paper was used extensively by the Andrews Government for framing its position and the Bill that has subsequently been written.
Dr Jones insists that churches have nothing to fear about the Bill. Given the significance of his claims, it is important to consider them.
Firstly he suggests,
“These fears are quickly assuaged by a plain reading of the bill and the statement of compatibility with the Charter of Human Rights.”
The statement of compatibility is at best tenuous and weak. Associate Professor of Law, Neil Foster, explains,
“Given the potential for a serious impact on the life of religious groups, then, does the Bill contain any protection for genuine religious freedom? Not a single word is said in the Bill about this. The only passing reference which would provide a slight comfort to religious groups would be that s 3(1)(b) tells us that one of the purposes of the Bill is “to further promote and protect the rights set out in the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities”. The EM, then, decides to spell out what is hidden here by alleging that the rights to be promoted by the Bill include:
the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief (section 14 of the Charter)
EM, page 3.
But how precisely the right to religion and belief is protected by a Bill that seems designed to marginalise and ignore deeply held religious convictions about sexual behaviour and how these can be taught in religious communities, is not explained.”
It is important to note that while Dr Jones suggests that concerns about the Bill are invalid, he then offers these two arguments:
1. there already exists limits to religious freedom, therefore there is no harm in legislating further restrictions.
“Placing limits on religious practices, as proposed in this bill, is not new. Both Australian law and international human rights law provide guidance on when it is appropriate to place limitations on religious practices.”
The question is, is it appropriate for the Victorian Government to gag ‘conversations’ with faith leaders about sex and gender? Is it appropriate for a Government to legislate against prayer? Is it appropriate for the Attorney General to explain in the Parliament that sermons “may be considered as part of the Legislative Assembly’s ongoing inquiry into anti-vilification protections.”
2. Churches need to change and form their views according to the testimonies of LGBT Victorians.
“People of faith can be confident to welcome the bill. Take it as an opportunity to listen to survivors and to get better equipped to provide your LGBTQ+ members with true spiritual care.”
Of course, it is important to listen to others. I am continually learning from and interested in the stories of others. Where Churches have made mistakes or genuinely done what is wrong, we ought to admit and repent. Dr Jones is saying much more. He is informing people of faith that ‘true spiritual care’ doesn’t stem from our sacred books, but from listening to and taking the advice of those who support the current views on sex and gender.
In what amounts to an ad hominem attack on religious leaders, Dr Jones alleges, “Rather than stoking unfounded fears, religious and opinion leaders should read the extensive work that has gone into the development and scrutiny of this world-leading legislation.”
Well, I have read his publication and have responded to it at length on other occasions. Preventing Harm, Promoting Justice is quite revealing. Far from assuaging the concerns expressed by religious leaders, this report confirms these concerns. Of course, this report is not the Bill but it nonetheless reveals the attitudes and framing of the Bill.
Given the importance of the Bill, which includes up to 10 years imprisonment for offenders, one would hope that the research that Government is relying upon is thorough and wide. When one reads Dr Jones’ report, we find the stories of 15 individuals. Surely 15 individuals is an inadequate pool size from which to draw substantive conclusions. More importantly, the research appears to be guilty of sampling bias. The recruitment process was limited to a narrow range of networks, which inevitably biased the sampling group that would be chosen.
“Participants were recruited through social media, LGBTI media reportage of the project, and through various LGBTI, queer and ex-gay survivor networks. Participants were selected, using theoretical sampling, to be broadly representative of religious and LGBT demographics in Australia, and were screened for their psychological capacity to undertake an in-depth life interview about potentially traumatic personal histories.”
Significantly, no persons from Muslim, Hindu, or irreligious backgrounds were interviewed, and only persons who were negatively impacted are included in the report. While the 15 participants are Australians, it is not known how many were recipients of conversion practices in Victoria, which I would have thought is important for the given context. This is not to argue against those 15 people who shared their story, people for whom I wish the very best, but it is important for the public to be made aware of what lays behind the Government’s legislation.
The credibility of the research is further weakened by the fact that the project steering committee consisted of representatives from LGBT lobby groups and progressive religious groups. To my knowledge, not one of the advisors represents a faith group that holds to the traditional understanding of sexuality and marriage. Why is that so? Why ignore the views of the overwhelming majority of Churches? Why were no positives stories published and used in the research? There are countless testimonies to share of people who have found great help and support in churches that hold to the classical understanding of marriage and sexuality.
Preventing Harm, Promoting Justice makes clear that the authors are not only viewing those few dreadful practices that were once used by a few marginal religious groups, they are targeting mainstream Christian Churches who teach, believe, and practice a classical view of human sexuality. For example,
“A similarly insidious development in conservative religious communities is the ‘welcoming but not affirming’ pastoral posture. Churches holding this stance maintain that LGBT status and behaviour is disordered and sinful, but keep this position muted in the hope of converting LGBT people to their version of Christianity.58 This ‘welcoming but not affirming’ posture equates to a more sophisticated version of the old evangelical adage, ‘love the sinner, hate the sin’. LGBT conversion therapy is not prominently promoted. However, LGBT people worshipping in communities that present cisgendered heterosexual marriage as the only valid form of gender and sexual expression are positioned to repress and reject their LGBT characteristics and to seek reorientation.”
By “insidious development” they refer to the view held by Christians since the time of Jesus, and that is normative in Christian Churches across the world today and in Victoria. They continue,
“In a religious landscape where there are many prominent religious voices hostile to LGBT people, churches holding a ‘welcoming but not affirming’ stance may appear attractive. They avoid overtly homophobic and transphobic rhetoric and welcome LGBT people. Community membership, however, is conditional on remaining closeted or a commitment to living chaste and celibate lives.”
In other words, Dr Jones takes issue with any faith community that holds to Jesus’ teaching about marriage and sexual relationship. Even encouraging the Biblical position on self-control is deemed wrong and inappropriate.
Under the heading of, “RELIGIOUS CONVERSION THERAPY IN AUSTRALIA TODAY”, the HRLC report refers to new forms of conversion practice, which include promoting self-control and abstinence.
“Instead, they are beginning to promote activities designed to help same-sex attracted people live chaste and celibate lives, in accordance with the sexual ethics of their religious traditions.”
As one academic in the field of gender studies has said to me in private, according to the above assertion, “self control is conversion therapy”.
Dr Jones’ words of ‘comfort’ in The Age are demonstrably undermined by his own words in Preventing Harm, Promoting Justice. His role in assisting the Victorian Government reveals how he and his coauthors do want churches to abandon their Biblical views and to instead endorse current gender theory. Granted, some of these Christians practices are not prohibited in the Bill, but others are. I am not referring to the few archaic and dreadful practices that once existed in marginal groups, I am speaking of pastoral conversation and prayer.
This entire episode is so unfortunate. The overwhelming majority of religious leaders affirm protecting people from nonconsensual practices and dreadful things such as aversion therapy. No one supports such things. Instead, the Government is acting well beyond what is reasonable or right. Christian Churches trust that the Victorian Parliament will redress the extraordinary overreaches contained in this Bill and send it to committee for important revision.
This breaking interview organised by Eternity News with the office of the Commissioner for LGBTIQ+ Communities, within Victoria’s Department of Premier and Cabinet, confirms the validity of the issues raised by myself and others (including what I explain above) – https://www.eternitynews.com.au/australia/victorias-conversion-practices-bill-detailed-answers-from-the-government/