As of 17 February 2022, one of the most anti-religious laws in the western world is now in force in the State of Victoria. The Victorian government passed the Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Act 2021 in early 2021 with implementation delayed for a year to allow the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission time to equip itself to exercise the extensive powers given to it under the new law.
The year has now passed. The Act is in force. The Commission is ready to start policing an Act which particularly scrutinises Christian churches, organisations and individuals who believe and teach orthodox Biblical doctrines of sexuality and identity.
For the first time in an Australian law, prayer is specifically outlawed. Not only that, Victorians who experience unwanted same sex attraction or identity confusion are banned from seeking spiritual or therapeutic help which in many cases has radically transformed their lives for the better. In fact, this Victorian Act erases their rights by formal legal declaration.
In the face of much uncertainty, churches, organisations and Christians need to take a clear and principled approach to how they will faithfully teach and practice Biblical doctrines and beliefs about sex and identity in their communities.
Much attention has been given to the criminal provisions of the Act under which Christians will face heavy fines and disproportionate jail time if they are proven to have changed or suppressed a person’s orientation or identity. However, the real threat comes from the Commission.
The Commission has been granted substantial power to subject churches, religious organisations, Christian schools and individuals to re-education, investigation, document production requirements, compliance notices and significant fines for teaching and practicing the Bible.
In the line of fire are traditional orthodox Christian beliefs on sex and identity. The Act includes:
- An extremely wide ban on vaguely defined “change or suppression practices” – which expressly include religious practices, such as consensual prayer and Christian biblical counselling on sex and identity issues;
- Broad and vague new definitions of “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” which encompass a ludicrously wide range of speech, teaching and conduct – much of which has little bearing on orientation or identity;
- The creation of serious criminal offences under which any person, including parents, teachers and preachers can be criminally prosecuted;
- The role of the Commission, granting broad powers of investigation, re-education and censure that allow the Commission to punish anyone who holds to and teaches Christian sexual ethics.
Everyone is affected by this new law. The Commission can accept a report from anyone and has a wide discretion whether it will investigate the report.
Pastors, parents, teachers, counsellors – anybody who engages on these issues either in a professional or private capacity – is at risk. The Commission has outlined the kinds of activities that it will now be targeting under these new laws:
- A pastors who counsels a member of their congregation who is dealing with unwanted same-sex attraction is at serious risk under these laws;
- A Christian counsellor who counsels a fellow Christian to live in accordance with biblical sexual ethics is at risk of criminal prosecution under the Act;
- A Catholic priest who counsels any person to be celibate outside of marriage will be at risk if that counsel is given to a person who is same-sex attracted;
- Parents of gender-confused children opposing their child’s wishes to undergo hormone therapy, or encouraging their child to wait until they are older to make that kind of a decision could be “supressing” their child’s gender identity under the Act.
The Commission has stated that anyone it investigates will be treated with procedural fairness guided by the principles of natural justice. It has also said that it will act without bias. However, in its official guidance VEOHRC has also stated that,
“Everyone has the right to [sic] treated equally without discrimination. A person’s sexual orientation and gender identity do not need to be fixed; they are not broken. Change or suppression practice are not supported by medical research. There is no evidence that sexual orientation or gender identity can be changed or suppressed. Not only do these practices not work, but they are also deeply harmful.”
Akin to fishing for reasons to investigate churches, the Commission is enthusiastically welcoming reports of “historical practices” as “they may provide valuable information in any investigations we may undertake”.
Despite the broad powers in the hands of the Commission, as the law currently stands, it is unlikely that pastors and preachers will face criminal sanction for continuing to preach and teach from the pulpit.
The Commission has acknowledged that normal religious activities engaged in by Christians are still ‘allowed’:
- A religious sermon expressing a general statement of belief (provided the sermon is not being directed at an individual in a group setting);
- Explaining a religious view of relationships; or
- An individual expressing their view on sexuality and gender.
Christian pastors, teachers and preachers should not be intimidated into silence. Christians can still meet together, and churches can still preach the Gospel. The temptation for religious communities will be to self-censor and to cease preaching and teaching the full breadth of their scripture for fear that it could attract investigation by the Commission.
Investigation will always be a possibility under these laws. However, it is ultimately the Courts that will decide whether a change or suppression practice has taken place. Courts are always the final interpreters of laws and will balance the Act against religious rights and freedoms.
With this is mind, Christians should be wise about how they share their faith with the world while they still have the ability to preach and teach the Gospel.
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