The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has told the Government that its conversion therapy proposals risk “unintended consequences” and must not cut across basic religious freedoms.
In its response to the Government’s consultation, the EHRC said the legislation “must be carefully drafted” to “avoid criminalising mainstream religious practice such as preaching, teaching and praying about sexual ethics”.
It also questioned the reliability of the Government’s 2017 National LGBT survey which is frequently cited as grounds for introducing a far-reaching ban that targets the ordinary work of churches.
The EHRC was clear that only “harmful practices” should be targeted, and those which “enable individuals to explore, reflect on or understand their sexual orientation or being transgender” should not be banned.
It added: “Encouraging people to comply with religious doctrine that requires refraining from certain types of sexual activity should not fall within the definition of conversion therapy either.”
Encouraging people to comply with religious doctrine that requires refraining from certain types of sexual activity should not fall within the definition of conversion therapy
The Commission highlighted that the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion is protected by Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, and said that in order to avoid infringing on the rights of Christians and others, “conversion therapy will need to be carefully defined in any legislation”.
It said this was important to ensure that “harmful practices are caught whilst mainstream religious practices such as preaching, teaching and praying about sexual ethics or gender roles, including in relation to children and young people under 18, are not criminalised”.
The EHRC said that while it supports the Government’s proposals “in principle”, a broad ban “might have unintended consequences”, and was clear that a ban “should not capture communication such as casual conversations, exchanges of views or private prayer, with the distinction defined clearly in the legislation”.
The equalities watchdog questioned the evidence used for initially drawing up the proposals, identifying significant problems with drawing meaningful conclusions from responses to the 2017 National LGBT survey.
Activists had used this survey to stress the importance of introducing a wide-ranging ban on conversion therapy, and blurred the line between ordinary religious practices and abhorrent practices such as ‘corrective rape’.
In the consultation response, the Commission said a new ban was not necessary to deal with such practices, stating: “Some of the more extreme forms of conversion therapy involving violent physical acts, such as ‘corrective rape’, could amount to torture or ill-treatment and are already unlawful criminal acts in the UK.”
‘Human rights minefield’
The Christian Institute’s Simon Calvert said: “These warnings from the Equality and Human Rights Commission confirm our fears that getting this legislation wrong could be deeply damaging for basic religious freedoms. And they also confirm that the research basis for the proposals is poor. The Government is rushing headlong into a human rights minefield. It needs to pause and take the time to get this right.”
He said that the Government also needs “to give clear, legally-watertight answers to the EHRC’s questions about how they plan to protect our basic right to pray and talk with friends about our beliefs. Christians must not be put at risk of prosecution just for inviting LGBT people to embrace the Christian faith”.
“We took advice from leading human rights QC, Jason Coppel, who confirms that Christian beliefs on sexuality are protected by human rights law. Our lawyers have made clear to the Equalities Minister that we are prepared to seek judicial review if the Government gets this wrong and brings in a ban which includes the ordinary, everyday activities of churches.”