The Lord Jesus left his disciples with a Great Commission in Matthew 28:19–20 to go out into the world, make disciples, baptize, and to do so “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” Becoming a disciple of Jesus means more than knowing what he taught, it involves learning to obey his teaching.
But laws that have been enacted in Australia might now make it unlawful to help someone who wants assistance to obey Jesus.
Victoria’s Extreme New Law
The most extreme of these laws, which have been enacted with the aim of forbidding what is popularly called “gay conversion therapy,” is the Change or Suppression (Conversion Practices) Prohibition Act 2021 passed in February by the State of Victoria. The Act will probably come into operation in February 2022 unless common sense prevails. For those concerned about this trend around the Western world, especially as represented in the US by the proposed Equality Act which passed Congress and will be considered by the Senate, and in the UK by current proposals for similar “conversion therapy” laws, an understanding of this radical Victorian law may point to the dangerous place these laws can lead.
Most Christians would use the word “conversion,” of course, to refer to when a person puts their faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for forgiveness and new life. But in a world where “sexual orientation” has become a key component of a person’s identity, the phrase “conversion therapy” has come to describe attempts to change a person’s orientation from homosexual to heterosexual. In more recent discussion, such as in the Victorian Act, the term has seemingly also been taken to mean an attempt to help a person who wants to live in a “gender identity” opposite to their biological sex, to feel comfortable in living in the sex proclaimed by their chromosomes.
Of course, there have been horrible attempts to force people to change sexual attraction by use of non-consensual and oppressive medical or quasi-psychiatric techniques. These were never supported by mainstream Christian churches, and no one is advocating for such today. But activists have mounted campaigns which tell stories of pressure they felt from church groups and others, and the legislation now targets far more than these horrible techniques.
The words used by the legislation make many other activities unlawful, despite bland assurances given by the Minister in Parliament. In the explanatory material issued by the Government there was an attempt to downplay the impact of the law on religious freedom (of both the person seeking counsel, and the counsellor) by saying that the definition would not apply to “general discussions of religious beliefs around sexual orientation or gender identity that aim to explain these beliefs and not change or suppress a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity” (emphasis added; taken from the “statement of compatibility” filed by the Government in Parliament). But the fact is that there are very few situations where someone has sought counsel from a Christian pastor where that person would simply “explain” the faith without encouraging the other person to obey what the Bible says. Indeed, as we know, the Bible itself warns against simply grasping the content of the word without obeying it (cf. James 1:22).
The heart of the Act is the definition given in s 5(1) of a “change or suppression practice,” which unpacks this as:
a practice or conduct directed towards a person, whether with or without the person’s consent—
(a) on the basis of the person’s sexual orientation or gender identity; and
(b) for the purpose of—
(i) changing or suppressing the sexual orientation or gender identity of the person; or
(ii) inducing the person to change or suppress their sexual orientation or gender identity.
In s 5(3)(b) the Act is explicit that such a practice includes:
carrying out a religious practice, including but not limited to, a prayer based practice, a deliverance practice or an exorcism.
The law clearly targets prayer and other “religious practices.” It then defines “sexual orientation” in s 59(3) in so broad a way that the term covers sexual activity as well as sexual attraction. The result is that encouraging someone not to act on a sexual temptation seems to fall within the definition of the phrase “change or suppression practice” in s 5, by “inducing the person to change or suppress their sexual orientation.” Such encouragement is unlawful despite it being consented to (or even actively sought) by a person seeking help — see for example the phrase “whether with or without the person’s consent” in s 5(1)!
Outlawing Godly Counsel
Take an example of a small Bible study group, where the leader explains that the Bible teaches that sexual activity is only right in a marriage between a man and a woman. The leader then encourages the members of the group to live in obedience to God’s words. He is then approached later privately by a member seeking more help, who says that he is wrestling with same-sex attraction and asks the leader for advice and prayer to help him resist the temptation to sin. The leader gives that advice and prays with the member.
This incident seems to fall within the definition of “change or suppression practice” under s 5 of the Act. The advice and prayer are “conduct . . . directed towards a person” (even with the person’s consent); on the basis of the person’s sexual orientation (remembering that sexual orientation includes “a person’s emotional, affectional and sexual attraction to . . . persons of a different gender”); “for the purpose of . . . inducing the person to change or suppress their sexual orientation”. It certainly seems arguable that encouraging someone not to have sex with persons of the same sex amounts to “inducing” them to “suppress” their orientation (that is, not to engage in “intimate or sexual relations with” such a person, which is also a part of the definition of “sexual orientation”).
Now it is important to note that at this point of our hypothetical, no criminal offense has been committed. There are criminal offenses created by the Act, but the main ones (in sections 10 and 11) further require proof beyond reasonable doubt of causation of “serious harm” or “harm,” along with negligence as to such harm at a criminal standard. Such harm, if it occurs, would probably require the passage of some time to detect. But even without such harm being established, the above activity, if it is indeed a “change or suppression practice” (“CSP”), is declared in s 9 to be a “contravention” of the Act; that is, it is unlawful.
The result of such a non-criminal contravention is that, under Part 3, it may trigger a “report” being made to the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission (“the Commission”). Suppose the person to whom the counsel and prayer were given is later convinced this was a bad thing and they were detrimentally affected by it — they can report it to the Commission under s 24. (In fact, the report can be made by anyone — so even a friend of theirs who was upset by the advice offered may decide to file a report.) This will open up a series of powers that the Commission can exercise: to ask for information from the person alleged to have engaged in the CSP (s 26), to offer “targeted education” to the alleged wrongdoer (s 28), to conduct mediation and seek a formal “agreement” which can be registered (ss 32–33). Alternatively, if the initial report leads the Commission to suspect “change or suppression practices that are systemic or persisting” (i.e. perhaps such advice has been given to other people seeking to live in accordance with the Bible), then under s 34 the Commission may commence a formal “investigation” which may lead to enforceable orders to change (s 45) and which can ultimately be enforced by a Tribunal (s 46).
Outlawing Christian Discipleship
There are more concerning details, but perhaps enough has been said to show how this law will make discipling a fellow believer unlawful when encouraging them to obey the words of Jesus to reject sexual immorality, such as Matthew 15:19 calls the Christian to.
It should also be noted that passage of this Bill does not indicate clear support in the Victorian community at large — the Bill was rushed through Parliament in the face of concerns also being expressed by purely secular professional organizations such as the Law Institute of Victoria, the Australian Medical Association (AMA) and the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists (RANZCP). (See this excellent post from Murray Campbell noting these issues.) But the law demonstrates the power of an emotional narrative attacking one type of harm, which is then broadened out to threaten those who would teach and encourage obedience to the truth of God’s Word.
Please pray for believers in Victoria who will want to obey Jesus and, like Paul in Acts 20:27, preach “the whole counsel of God.” Pray that this law will be limited in its operation, and that believers will continue be able to preach the life-giving words of God in Australia and elsewhere.
Neil Foster is an Associate Professor of Law at Newcastle Law School, in the University of Newcastle, NSW. He teaches an elective on “Law and Religion”, and blogs on the issues at https://lawandreligionaustralia.blog.
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