Prayer addressing sexual ethics has been branded a “harmful practice” during a debate on so-called conversion therapy in Northern Ireland.
A motion calling on the Stormont Executive to legislate for a ban before the end of the current Assembly term was put forward by two MLAs, who said conversion therapy should be banned “in all its forms”.
The motion passed by 59 votes to 24 on Tuesday, and Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey said she would bring forward legislation “as soon as possible”.
Doug Beattie MLA, who proposed the ban alongside John Stewart, called conversion therapy “humiliating”, but did not define what would be in the scope of a ban.
An amendment put forward by the DUP to recognise “that legitimate religious activities, such as preaching, prayer and pastoral support, do not constitute conversion therapy, cannot be defined as such and must be protected” was rejected.
Beattie denied a ban would stifle religious freedom, claiming it was about banning “harmful” practices.
His comments were echoed by Sinn Fein’s Carál Ní Chuilín who said “No one in the House has an issue with the banning of torture. That is what conversion therapy is.”
However, these comments were challenged by others, including TUV leader Jim Allister, who supports ending “gruesome practices that, historically, were associated with what has been called conversion therapy”. But he highlighted that the proposed ban would go much further.
outlawing the beliefs of hundreds of thousands of people
He said LGBT activists are seeking to criminalise prayer and preaching “in accordance with the sexual ethics set forth in holy scripture”. He added: “Where there has been legislation, as in Victoria, Australia, that’s exactly what happened.”
Jim Wells agreed, noting that the proposed ban amounts to “outlawing the beliefs of hundreds of thousands of people”.
“Normal, everyday Christian practices and beliefs are being compared to bogus therapy and even rape, and that is considered as merely semantics. I am not sure that I have strong enough words to condemn that slur.”
Pam Cameron explained that the DUP “believes that discrimination against someone on the basis of their sexual orientation is wrong. We are all created equal and should be treated as such. No one should ever be forced into treatment for being gay.
we are concerned about the absence of any clear or evidence-based definition of conversion therapy
“I share the grave concerns of many members at the various abhorrent practices that have been promoted under the umbrella of conversion therapy in the past and those that sadly still exist.
“However, we are concerned about the absence of any clear or evidence-based definition of conversion therapy in the motion. There is a risk that such ambiguity, if translated into legislation, would criminalise legitimate activities or conversations. We simply want to avoid unintended and unjustified consequences.”
Conversion therapy was also discussed in the media, with Belfast councillor Séamas de Faoite branding prayer “coercive” during a BBC Radio Ulster interview in which he frustrated host Stephen Nolan by repeatedly avoiding the question of criminalisation.
Asked if he was in favour of criminalising prayer, the LGBT campaigner said “The issue here is about trying to protect LGBT people”.
When Mr Nolan asked him if he believed prayer to change someone’s sexuality was “legitimate”, de Faoite said: “I don’t believe it’s legitimate. I think it’s coercive and I think it puts LGBT people in a very dangerous position.”
The host commented that the councillor did seem to be indicating that the SDLP would outlaw prayer and interpretations of the Bible of which it disapproved.