Attempt to amend Online Safety Bill could outlaw online evangelism

A Conservative backbencher has tabled an amendment to the Online Safety Bill which could lead to social media giants suppressing online church outreach.

Alicia Kearns MP’s amendment to Clause 11 of the Bill would mean content “which advertises or promotes the practice of so-called conversion practices of LGBTQ+ individuals” would be branded ‘harmful’.

Responding, The Christian Institute warned that the vague wording could lead to “any content which invites under-18s identifying as LGBT to change their religion being removed”.

Religious illiteracy

In an email to MPs urging them to oppose the amendment, which could be debated next week if it is selected, the Institute’s Simon Calvert pointed out that the word ‘conversion’ is routinely used to refer to a person changing religion.

The idea that religious conversion ‘must be considered as harmful’ and filtered out by tech companies is deeply intolerant.

This is protected under Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which says: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief”.

Clause 11 relates to “safety duties protecting children” for user-to-user-services such as Instagram, Facebook or TikTok. The Christian Institute has repeatedly called for greater protections for children but said this is a “grotesque twisting” of the concept.

The briefing adds: “The idea that religious conversion ‘must be considered as harmful’ and filtered out by tech companies is deeply intolerant.”

Promoting Christian faith

Mr Calvert continued: “Churches and Christian organisations routinely post material aimed at promoting the Christian faith to young people. This might be an invitation to church, a quote from the Bible, or an offer of prayer.

“If a gay or trans young person is included in the distribution list, or reads it on their feed, is that ‘the practice of so-called conversion practices’?”

Mr Calvert also noted that judgements over what content should be banned would be left to tech companies, which are not known for their religious literacy or sympathy to devout religious believers.

It is possible to protect LGBT people from harm without attacking innocent religious practices.

He added: “It is possible to protect LGBT people from harm without attacking innocent religious practices. Mrs Kearns’ amendment, due to its vagueness and careless drafting, does attack innocent religious practices.”

Gender confusion

Other content could also fall foul of the law, as women having online conversations with girls struggling with gender confusion may also be regarded as ‘conversion practices’, if such conversations are deemed ‘non-affirming’.

Women’s rights campaign group Sex Matters has previously said a ban on conversion therapy “would contribute to the climate of fear for professionals, organisations and parents who do not support an affirmation-only approach to gender identity” and added that this would “leave more young people facing one-way pressure to transition physically”.

The Institute warned that Kearns’ amendment “would contribute to the same climate of fear” if passed.

Simon Calvert also said that Mrs Kearns’ amendment could backfire on LGBT groups, pointing out that “Stonewall could be accused of ‘conversion practices’ for putting out material encouraging young people to question their gender identity.”

Repressive law

Kearns has been leading calls for a broad conversion therapy ban, and in 2021 listed prayer alongside grotesque acts such as ‘corrective rape’ in her definition of conversion therapy.

She is pushing for an extreme ban, such as the one in place in Victoria, Australia, claiming the model is “a good one”, and adding there is “a lot to learn from the Victorian model”.

However, the ban in Victoria means parents who refuse to consent to their children taking puberty blockers are guilty of unlawful conversion therapy. Not affirming someone’s gender identity is also illegal.

It is so repressive there are media reports of parents of trans children being “unable to do anything to prevent their children pursuing potentially irreversible and harmful changes – from chest-binding to taking hormone blockers and ultimately sex-change surgery”.

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