The Presbyterian Church in Ireland has set out its opposition to a ban on so called conversion therapy, which it says could criminalise the ordinary work of churches.
MLAs Doug Beattie and John Stewart have tabled a motion calling for the NI Executive to ban conversion therapy “in all its forms”, which is being debated today.
Concerns have been expressed that broad legislation would criminalise ordinary Christian activity including preaching, prayer and pastoral care.
LGBT lobby groups are backing a catch-all ban with no exemption for faith groups.
However, the DUP, which is opposed to coercive practices, stressed that “legitimate religious activities such as preaching, prayer and pastoral support do not constitute conversion therapy”.
A spokesperson said the party believes “there must be a balance between safeguarding against dangerous practices and any attempt, deliberate or otherwise, to restrict freedom of religious belief, speech and association.
“We retain a level of concern that the debate on this important issue has at times become conflated with efforts to restrict these freedoms and constrain legitimate activities by religious organisations or others which cannot reasonably be deemed to be conversion therapy.”
The Rt Revd Dr David Bruce, Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, explained that his denomination opposes coercive attempts to change someone’s sexual orientation, but says the motion’s wording about banning conversion therapy “in all its forms” is problematic.
He queried whether an outright ban would be entirely beneficial for a young Christian who is same-sex attracted, asking: “Is a youth leader, or a minister, to be prevented in law from having a loving, empathetic and compassionate pastoral conversation with a young person of faith about these questions? Can they pray together about these matters?”
Why should it be considered wrong for a minister to talk freely with anyone about living the Christian life?
He continued: “We pray about the most personal aspects of our lives, from relationships to career choices.
“Why then should ministers and leaders be prevented from praying with members of our own churches who seek it, simply because their request to talk involves their sexuality? Why should it be considered wrong for a minister to talk freely with anyone about living the Christian life?”
The Christian Institute’s Simon Calvert said people must be protected from “dangerous quack medical practices”, but said some LGBT activists are pushing to criminalise all sorts of ordinary religious activities.
He said: “A ban on spiritual guidance and prayer would be tyrannical and unworkable.
“Do they expect police, prosecutors and courts to decide which kinds of prayer are criminal and which are not?”