Victorian Conversion Bill an unparalleled threat to religious freedom

As 2021 begins, we observe the onward march of a Bill introduced in Victoria late last year to outlaw what the Victorian Premier has described as “cruel and bigoted practices that seek to change or suppress a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity”.

As of the date of this newsletter, the Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Bill 2020 has been approved by the Legislative Assembly and will move to the Legislative Council in early 2021 for a Second Reading. If significant challenges to the Bill are not raised in its Second Reading, the Bill is all set to become law in Victoria within the next month or so.

HRLA has addressed many of the threats to religious freedom in our legal analysis in a previous newsletter which we develop further below.

The Bill threatens Christian sexual ethics

The Bill purportedly targets long-abandoned invasive and coercive historical clinical treatments to treat sexual attraction. Analysis of the Bill reveals that it will ban such a broad range of conduct that it will threaten any individual who teaches or advocates traditional Christian convictions about sexual identity and conduct.

In fact, the definition of banned practices explicitly targets religious practices and specifically includes prayer as a practice that could lead to sanction. It does not matter if the conduct was requested, or if a person benefits from it – that conduct will be prohibited.

The Bill is so broad that it will prevent real people to get real help for issues of sexuality and gender. Free to Change has conducted a study which documents the experiences of 78 member of the LGBT community who report changed lives and long-term benefits from secular and religious assistance with unwanted sexual attraction and gender dysphoria. This Bill would ban consensual treatments and services that these people have found helpful.

The Bill has major flaws that require significant amendment. The Institute for Civil Society has published a discussion paper outlining the key failings of the Bill, its background and proposed amendments that would remedy or mitigate some of the Bill’s flaws.

Associate Professor of Law, Neil Foster has written several articles on the fact that this is a bad Bill and analysing the dangers of the Bill.

This Bill is a serious threat to personal and religious freedom and could result in serious civil and criminal penalties for the teaching, expression, and promulgation of Biblical sexual ethics.  Some of the more prominent elements of the Bill are:

  • A person who engages in a banned practice could face prison for up to 10 years and/or receive a fine of up to $200,000.00.
  • The Bill criminalises a person who engages in a banned practice, but also a person who refers someone to somebody who engages in such a practice.
  • The Bill extends to online practices including social media activity, blogs and online audio-visual content, and applies outside of Victoria if they affect someone in Victoria.
  • The Bill grants broad powers and authority to the Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission of Victoria to open and pursue investigations into anyone the Commission suspects of being involved in practices of this sort, whether organisations, churches or individuals. Complaints can be made anonymously and can be investigated under strict secrecy, subjecting the person under investigation to a costly, stressful and time-consuming process of litigation without ever being given the opportunity to confront or learn the identity of their accuser.

What You Can Do

Victorians concerned about the Bill should make their voice heard with members of the Legislative Chamber urging that this Bill is fundamentally flawed and that it must not be passed without sensible amendments. Amendments that have been put forward by the Institute for Civil Society will be useful. Stories from Free to Change are also powerful tools. In addition, the Australian Christian Lobby has formulated some options for action here.

As in all things, it is also important to pray that the Bill is defeated or that it is amended to remove the clear threat to religious freedom.