Victoria’s Conversion Practices Act is a genuine assault on religious freedom

I just got off the phone with a friend and fellow baptist pastor from Melbourne. He has resigned himself to the likelihood that he will face imprisonment over the next few years. This isn’t because he’s done anything wrong or immoral. He’s a faithful follower of Jesus and lovingly serves a local church. He shared how he has been made to feel that he is a criminal. Again, this is not because he is behaving in any egregious manner. It is because he is a faithful follower of Jesus and a loving pastor that he is expects to face jail time.

My friend had just attended an information session for baptist pastors regarding Victoria’s new conversion practices laws. I attended the same forum but on a different day. 

The Government representatives provided a thorough briefing on the intent and details of The Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Act. No assurance was given that the laws are only targeting extreme practices. Instead, the Government representatives made it clear that numerous Christian beliefs and practices are now on the wrong side of the law.

I won’t repeat everything that was said in the forum, nor will I cover all the ground that I’ve written about previously and that others have well documented.  The aim here is to remind Victorians of the serious threats posed by The Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Act. The Bill was adopted by the Victorian Parliament in February this year,  and it comes into effect  February 2022. 

At the moment, churches are understandably focused on issues relating to COVID-19 and what church may look like once we can return in November. At the same time, this Act looms large and will have real consequences for faithful Christians and also for Victorians who seek solace and new identity in Jesus Christ. 

Government Doctrine

The forum speakers were at pains to say that their role was to explain the law and not enter discussions about religious doctrines. However, their commentary was interspersed with judgements on various Christian beliefs and practices.  One Government official referred to the Christian view of sexuality as ‘insidious’. The law itself  is designed to stop certain beliefs and practices inherent to the Christian faith.  Indeed, the Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Act is a religious manifesto wrapped in the guise of politics and law. Lest we were left in any doubt, the government presenters offered ‘Christian’ resources for us to read. None of the sources reflect Christian  views, but the teachings of LGBT activist groups. 

For example, we were informed that no person’s sexuality or gender identity is broken or sinful, and to suggest so contravenes the intent of the new laws. While this may be a popular view in our cultural moment, it is logically incoherent and experientially false. 

We were told that,

“It’s deceptive to say there’s a problem when there isn’t one.”

And

“It wrong to suggest that “you cannot have faith unless you change”.

However, by definition Christianity is a conversion religion. God requires us to repent of sin and to turn to him for forgiveness, new life, and reconciliation. There is no Christian without change. People are persuaded by the message of Jesus Christ and are changed by it. I am not suggesting that a person’s sexual orientation changes, nor do we minister for that goal. Contrary to the views presented at the forum which repeatedly stated that people cannot change, the fact is,  some people do find their sexual orientation change, while many do not. What does change however is an individual’s desire to live in conformity with God’s righteousness. It is normal for people to share this newly found desire in Christ and to seek counsel and prayer to live in light of the beliefs that they are now persuaded to be good and right.

We were informed by a lawyer representing the Government that, 

“We are to affirm peoples sexual orientation and preferences and ‘the love of God’ in that!”

The love of God as described by God in the Bible is given to people not on account of moral aptitude and adherence to his laws. The beautiful account of God in the person of Jesus Christ is that God loves ‘sinners’. It is not a love that condones human sexual behaviour and preferences, but a love that is offered despite our behaviour and desires. To affirm certain preferences is not ‘the love of God’, that is a betrayal of his love, and it is beyond the scope of a government lawyer to suggest so.

The following questions were asked during the forum of the panel:

Christians believe that sexual practices should only take place within marriage between a man and a woman. This belief comes from the Bible, affirmed by Jesus, and has been the norm for thousands of years. 

Say, for example, someone approaches a Christian and shares that they are same sex attracted. They ask for prayer because they don’t want to live out those desires but instead live according to Christian principles. I am acting unlawfully by praying this with/for them?

If the same person also asks me for assistance on how to live according to Christian beliefs and so refrain from sexual relations outside heterosexual marriage, am I acting unlawfully?

The answer in both cases is, yes, this would be a breach of the law.

Here’s another example, a home group may conduct a Bible study on Romans chapter 1. However, if during the study someone shares that they are homosexual, the study cannot continue, because doing so may be interpreted as an attempt to change or suppress the individual’s sexual orientation. 

There is one point where confusion remains; it relates to church positions (whether staff, volunteer, or membership). While a church can appoint persons in line with expressed doctrinal values, it seems to be the case that once a person reveals their sexual orientation or gender identity, you cannot remove them from their role. This will have real repercussions for issues of employment, freedom of association, and the Christian practice of church discipline.

To be clear, it is not only religious leaders who are subject to the Act, everyone Victorian is subject to these laws.

Government Overreach

Since governmental discussions on conversion practices started 4-5 years ago, the direction was pretty clear, and today’s forum has reinforced this simple fact: in Victoria only one view of humanity is permitted, and the Christian view is not it.

No doubt, some Victorians will be very pleased with this news. However, for all the pop-talk about the separation of church and state, and of government commissions not getting involved in church doctrine, this law is all about doctrine and forcing a hardline (and at times anti-scientific) humanistic view onto religion.  As another pastor expressed to me, for a law that’s designed to ban ‘conversion’, he feels that he is being forcibly converted away from Christianity and into some new fangled civil religion.

It is extraordinary for a government to assume such authority and tell its citizens how to pray and who to pray for. It is beyond reason and fairness that a government should threaten religious people for loving others as Christ has loved us. To wield the law in order to bully churches into changing their beliefs is beyond the pale.

Through reading and hearing stories I am aware that a few religious groups have taught and practiced things that are wrong and harmful. I don’t know of anyone who disagrees with every element of the Act. I’ve been on the record since I first heard about ‘conversion practices’ and publicly repudiated such activities. However, this law goes well beyond banning a few practices that belonged on the fringes of a small number of religious organisations. It’s like the Government noticed an ingrown toenail on the left foot and their answer is to cut off the entire leg, and then threaten to cut off other leg should should we offer any resistance! Let me repeat, this law makes it illegal to speak with someone and pray with someone about human sexuality in line with the Christian faith. Worse still, it threatens to silence the most precious good news the world can ever know.

The Bible is clear and good

“Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men[a10 nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” (1Corinthians 6:9-11)

Becoming a Christian doesn’t remove every issue or struggle, but it does give us a new standing and status before God, and by his Spirit he gives us a new set of desires and purpose. I am not saying that a person’s sexual orientation will change. I don’t think the aim is to change a person’s orientation, nor have I ever suggested so. The Christian goal is to persuade people with the Gospel of Jesus Christ and to encourage believers to live godly lives that reflect God’s good purposes as revealed in the Bible.

Again, the Bible is clear. You may not agree with it, but that’s part of living in a healthy and pluralistic society. People share and exchange ideas, and people do their best to love and care, and people can choose to engage or not. When the Government deems it necessary to clamp down on historic mainstream Christianity, all Victorians needs to be aware and consider what is becoming of our society. 

What can Churches do? Write a letter to their local MP expressing concerns. Speak with your organisational/denominational leaders and them to provide adequate protections and advice for churches. Don’t give up on the goodness of the Gospel. 

Victoria Bans Conversion Practices Despite Significant Flaws in the Bill

“Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter.” (Isaiah 5:20)

“Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor.” (1 Peter 2:17)

What do we do when good is defined as bad? What is a godly reaction to a society that formally deems Christian beliefs as wrong. 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, I am not talking about aversion practices and nonconsensual 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. I am talking about prayer and conversation. What happens when people of faith are prohibited by law from praying and speaking in line with our Christian beliefs, even when people come to us for help and ask? If someone is offended, I can be reported to VCAT. If someone alleges ‘harm’, the criminal charges can be laid.

The Victorian Parliament last night adopted the Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Bill 2020. None of the reasonable amendments offered by different Legislative Council members were accepted. I believe there will now be a 12 month implementation period before the Acts come into law.

Amongst 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. 

Under this Act, if Jesus shared his views with an individual or prayed with someone who came to him because they were struggling with their sexual or gender identity, Jesus could face criminal charges and time in prison. Why? Jesus taught that all sexual relations outside of marriage between a man and a woman are immoral (cf Matthew 19). Of course Jesus’ view, which upholds the teaching of the Bible, form the beliefs that Christians carry today and that shape our lives.

During tonight’s debate, on member of the Legislative Council asked the Attorney General, 

‘How will the Government up-skill ministers and pastors so that they know where the line in what they can and cannot say to people about sexual orientation and gender identity?’ (my 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.

One of the disappointments in the surrounding debate is how Victorians have been told that this Bill will not intrude on religious freedoms. Even in the Legislative Council today, members simply denounced concerns as though anyone daring to raise issues is either barking mad or of evil intent. This public display has turned out to be one of the great gaslighting projects in the State’s history. There is so much gaslighting going on that the whole of Melbourne could create a new energy supply, only like coal and it’ll have side effects that outlast Climate Change. 

For example, Victoria’s new Attorney General last night claimed on Twitter that the Bill does not ban prayer. The problem is, the Bill expressively prohibits prayer. Illegal practices include, “carrying out a religious practice, including but not limited to, a prayer based practice” (5.3B). 

If someone asks for prayer, that they might live a sexual life in accord with Biblical principles, and I then pray in accord with this request, I will be breaking the law and I can face criminal charges. 

Another example appeared on the ABC today. Nathan Despott of the Brave Network, said of the Bill,

“It [the Bill] is precise and nuanced. It targets harm where it occurs, it does not stop conversations”.

The Bill doesn’t stop conversation? Let’s take a look at the Explantory Memorandum that accompanies the Bill,

“These examples are illustrative only and do not narrow the definition in subclause (1) which is intended to capture a broad range of conduct, including, informal practices, such as conversations with a community leader that encourage change or suppression of sexual orientation or gender identity, and more formal practices, such as behaviour change programs and residential camps.” (Bold is my emphasis)

Religious freedom issues are only some of the concerns that have been raised about this Bill. Feminist and LGB groups are concerned that the Bill will send vulnerable children down are dangerous path, as has been demonstrated in the UK’s recent High Court Case, Bell vs Tavistock. The Government ignored legitimate and reasonable concerns articulated by some of Australia’s pre-eminent legal minds and medical experts. Dr Philip Morris, President the National Association of Practising Psychiatrists, has explained how this Bill may prevent doctors from offering due patient care. The Australian Medical Association (AMA) and the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists (RANZCP) have expressed concerns. The list continues.

Health Minister Martin Foley flicked these concerns away as though they were the rumours of ignorant people. The Australian reported yesterday,

“Victorian Health Minister Martin Foley has dismissed concerns from the Australian Medical ­Association and the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists regarding the ­Andrews government’s gay conversion therapy bill, describing them as “misplaced”.

To those who have called for amendments, especially when it is religious Victorians speaking, Government members have had the gaul to respond with insult. Those who dare question the Bill are referred to as ‘bigots’ and ‘quacks’. 

Premier Daniel Andrews has said,

“it is cruel. To wrap that bigotry in faith is an insult all of its own … in this debate some faith leaders have been critical of these provisions, critical of a law to ban the worst form of bigoted quackery imaginable. This is not kindness and love or the protection of the vulnerable and persecuted. This is not something to be proud of.”

When a Government ignores the concerns of leading medical and legal experts and resorts to slandering concerned citizens, it is understandable that people feel uneasy. 

Just in case we’re thinking that the only objection is to a few practices, think again. This Victorian Government made clear that the Christian view of sexuality is an underlying problem. 

Jill Hennessy said in the Parliament, “These views won’t be tolerated in Victoria.”

The Government’s LGBTIQ Commissioner explained,

“The proposed law is quite clear in countering any teaching that says that homosexual sex is wrong, so this may well be part of their education”

Yes, churches sometimes get things wrong. Yes, in the past a few religious organisations acted foolishly and wrongly; no one is pretending otherwise. Yes, there are awful stories of people being mistreated because of their sexuality, and where wrong was done repentance ought to come. But this Parliamentary Act is no fair handed solution. In short, in order to catch a rat this Government proposed that the State blow up the whole building. 

The Victorian Parliament has adopted the harshest laws anywhere in the world and with the heaviest possible penalties.

Victoria’s Premier may exhibit the ego of Apollo but he isn’t God. The Victorian Parliament is not the ultimate arbiter of righteousness. Christians are called by God to submit to Governing authorities, to pray for them and to obey them. We should continue to do so. What happens though when a Government oversteps its jurisdiction and demands greater allegiance than is given them?

Churches and religious organisations now need to prepare their people to understand the many implications of the new laws. Pastors, Principals, and parents should educate their congregations, employees, and families to discern how they will live faithfully in this new environment.

Take note, this Bill is not the end of the story. Expect the further steps to limit religious freedoms in Victoria. This is not fear mongering or hyperbole; this is taking on board the words of Government ministers. Even before the Bill was voted, the Government indicated that the list of prohibitions may be extended after 12 months, even to include sermons. Plan for some very difficult days to come.

And continue to do good. The Apostle Peter wrote a letter to Christians whom he refers to as ‘exiles’. They were exiles because the Apostles knew that this world isn’t our home. Our current place of residence is temporary. We love being Aussies and living in Melbourne. We appreciate and value the life that’s enjoyed in Victoria. We serve our fellow Victorians and desire good for them. We are part of local communities who share life with Victorians from all kinds of backgrounds and interests. However, this isn’t the ultimately it. Perhaps we need to learn the lesson that so many believers have understood in other parts of the world: hold less tight to the things on earth and turn our attention to that which Christ directs our affections and hope.

Peter wrote this sentence which is perfectly apt for Victorian Christians today, 

“Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.”

A few verses later Peter directs our attention to Jesus,

“When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly”.

Let us not give up doing good. Should people stop loving others because of unjust laws? If that were the case, many erroneous movements in history would have succeeded.

I pray that the new context in which Victoria now finds itself will be used of God to refine our own hearts and to reform our ways as churches. I pray that LGBT Victorians will be protected from harm and that despite these unjust laws, the good news of Jesus Christ will continue to be heard and embraced like never before in our State.

No doubt many people will celebrate tonight’s decision, and those who voted for the Bill will believe they have done right. Triumphalism fades in the morning. One day our consciences will stir and the reality of the poor decision will strike home. In the meantime, the very law that is aimed at preventing harm will in fact inflict State sanctioned harm on vulnerable people and against religious people who have simply answered questions and prayed a prayer.