Yet another U-turn: UK government to criminalise ‘conversion therapies’, including gender self-identification

Evangelical Christians express disappointment as Prime Minister Rishi Sunak goes ahead with plans that could “criminalise ordinary Christian ministry that seeks to help believers”.

Evangelical Focus , Joel Forster

LONDON · 26 OCTOBER 2023 · 12:21 CET

Rishi Sunak, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. / Photo: <a target="_blank" href="">Number 10</a> Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND ,
Rishi Sunak, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. / Photo: Number 10 Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

After a long debate in society and also inside the political party in power, the UK government led by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak will push a law to ban so-called ‘conversion therapies’.

In practice, any attempt to support a change in the sexual orientation or gender identification in others would be considered a criminal offence in England and Wales. The text of the future law is expected to be announced after parliamentarians inside the Conservative Party warned about a loss of support among LGBTQI+ organisations, London-based newspaper The Times reported.

On the other side, conservative members of the parliament have warned that going ahead with such a law would mean that teachers and parents would face criminal sanctions if they advise children against changing their gender. This would censor “legitimate conversations” about transgenderism.


Evangelicals see “attack on freedom of individuals”

Evangelical Christians from a large spectrum have voiced their opposition to such a law in the last years. John Stevens, director of the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches (FIEC), spoke again of a “very worrying development”.

“Damaging practices that harm LBGT people are already illegal”, he wrote on social media platform X. The new legislation would “criminalise ordinary Christian ministry that seeks to help believers live faithfully by Jesus’ teaching on sex”.

The government initiative, said Stevens, is “an attack on religious freedom and the freedom of individuals who want help when they experience unwanted and unwelcome same-sex desires, and who do not believe these desires constitute their true self”.

Such a law, Stevens continued, reflects a “new secular dogma that sexual orientation is ontologically immutable and defining of personal identity”.

The FIEC is one of the growing Christian movements in the UK. Its member churches hold to a historic Christian view of human sexuality and identity.


Restrictions on prayer and preaching?

The Christian Institute also reacted to the plans of the government. The non-profit entity monitoring religious freedom in the UK has said it will take legal action if the law leads to restrictions of church activities such as preaching, prayer and pastoral counselling, reported news website Christian Today.

“Gay and trans people are already protected, quite rightly, from verbal and physical abuse by existing law. Since those things are outlawed, what is it that this Bill will seek to criminalise?”, asked the organisation’s public affairs leader, Simon Calvert. “They want a kind of LGBT blasphemy law. This is profoundly illiberal”, he added.


A long debate

A ban on ‘conversion therapies’ was first put on the table by Prime Minister Theresa May, also a Conservative, in 2018. The controversy around the specific definitions and restrictions delayed the initiative several times.

Churches have warned about the criminalisation of pastoral and prayers with same-sex attracted people or individuals considering gender transition.

The Evangelical Alliance United Kingdom (EAUK), which has joined the public debate on the issue, lamented in 2022 the “unclear” plans of the government. “Efforts to ban conversion therapy should be carefully scrutinised to ensure they do not have unintended consequences”, thhey said.

In January 2023, Sunak’s cabinet announced it would go ahead but without including transgenderism in the law. A spokesperson of the UK said it was frustrating to see another “u-turn on the u-turn on a u-turn”.

Furthermore, advocacy group Christian Concern said “human rights” would be restricted if the law ends up “criminalising consensual conversations with those who genuinely want help and support”.

Speaking to Evangelical Focus, Andrew Bunt, a member of Living Out, a group of same-sex attracted Christians who hold to a traditional Christian understanding of sexual ethics, said “churches have hugely improved pastoral care for same-sex attracted people”.

Similar laws in Europe

Since 2022, it is no longer legal to help citizens change their sexual orientation or gender self-identification in France. The French Penal Code speaks of up to 3 years imprisonment and a fine of up to €45,000 for “repeated practices, behaviour or statements aimed at modifying or repressing a person’s actual or assumed sexual orientation or gender identity and having the effect of altering their physical or mental health”. Christian organisations have already been investigated for allegedly breaking the law.

Switzerland has also moved towards banning ‘conversion therapies’, after some cases of bad practices were reported on national television. The Evangelical Alliance opposed the law for the “lack of clarity” as it expressed its commitment to “ensure that Christian pastoral care and accompaniment of homosexual persons does not promote unrealistic expectations, respects the professional boundaries, always respects the will of the person being accompanied and their dignity, and protects their physical and mental health”.

Meanwhile, Malta prosecuted a Christian man for sharing his “ex-gay testimony” publicly.

In Spain, the controversial Trans Law passed at the end of 2022 also bans ‘conversion therapies’.

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