9 November 2022

Scottish Government Advisory Group Calls for Ban on the Ordinary Work of Churches

Written by Joel Upton

The following article was first featured in the Affinity Social Issues Bulletin (Issue 51 – November 2022). Download the whole issue for free.

At the beginning of 2022, the Scottish Government established an ‘Expert Advisory Group’ on banning conversion therapy. The group’s role was to help the Scottish Government understand how a ban should function. Now it has published its official report, and it is deeply worrying.[1]

The Report calls for an extreme ban on conversion therapy, which would see pastors and parents criminalised for conversations about marriage, sex and gender.

It claims that Christians teaching ‘the importance of marriage’ is an attempt to ‘suppress LGBT people’ (the Advisory Group’s definition of ‘conversion therapy’). It says Christian leaders should have their ‘professional licence as a faith leader’ removed or have their ‘ability to work within Scotland’ withdrawn if they are found guilty of the new offence. And it says: ‘Where parents or guardians have engaged in conversion practices, the modification or even withdrawal of their parental or guardianship rights is envisaged as an option.’

‘Horrendous abuse’

Of course, a key question is what a pastor or parent must be found guilty of to suffer these heavy sanctions. Are these punishments for carrying out horrendous abuse, or is this an attempt to limit the ordinary work of churches?

What do you think of when you hear ‘conversion therapy’? Most would reflect on medical experiments and horror film-like scenes from decades ago. It should go without saying that Christians, believing all are made in the image of God, can never condone such abuse. We would hope that were such practices happening today, churches would stand firmly against them.

But these practices are already illegal and ceased long ago, as admitted by institutions which carried them out.[2] Yet activists tell us ‘conversion therapy’ takes place today in different forms which ought to be outlawed. The Advisory Group’s Report makes it clear that Christians are right to be wary of what that means – these ‘forms’ all too often sounding more like ‘conversion’ than any sort of attempted ‘therapy’. 

Church practices

The Advisory Group recommends the Scottish Government follow the model of the State of Victoria in Australia. Its conversion therapy ban is known as the world’s most repressive, with the body enforcing it even claiming it is now illegal to ‘not affirm someone’s gender identity’. Churches which teach celibacy for those who are unmarried, and those who say homosexual practice is a sin, are also conducting ‘conversion therapy’ according to the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission.

And then there is the impact of the Victoria legislation on parents. Those who refuse to support their children receiving puberty blockers are apparently breaking the law. Parents there have been forced to form ‘a clandestine network to exchange ideas on how to approach the legal minefield’, as even discussion seems to be under the purview of the legislation.[3]

So while activists in Scotland hail Victoria’s ‘conversion therapy’ ban as the ‘gold standard’, those in Australia are left frightened by a law which seemingly stops them from voicing concerns either with their children or in the public arena.

Far from tackling abuse, then, the Advisory Group wants to replicate bad laws from other countries. And it is ordinary parents and the ordinary work of churches which are at risk.

Avoiding bad legislation

In such a contested arena, an ‘expert panel’ would seem like a sensible idea. It is surely wise to take advice from those who understand the issues deeply and grasp the wider significance and concerns of all involved. But the Scottish Government’s choice of ‘experts’ is telling.

When the decision to form a panel was first announced, The Christian Institute asked for a seat at the table. The Scottish Government said it would ensure representation across the board. But when the membership was announced it was clear that only those who had already pledged outright support for a broad ban were approached.

Meanwhile, the Scottish Government’s plans for a new law on ‘conversion therapy’ have made this a law on fundamental human rights. You would be right to think a panel for this purpose would be made up of lawyers and human rights scholars – but it is not. Instead, we have activists from LGBT campaign groups and some from the most liberal wings of the Scottish churches recommending the Government rolls back decades of hard-won protections for freedom of speech and freedom of belief.

That is why The Christian Institute’s ‘Let Us Pray’ campaign is so important. It speaks out against the extreme views of LGBT activists who are driving conversion therapy proposals. Let Us Pray is clear about what activists really mean when they speak about ‘conversion therapy’ and decodes the jargon those pressing for new legislation try to hide behind.

Dangerous ideology

Talking of the ‘suppression of LGBT people’ while describing ‘teaching the importance of marriage’ shows how the activists think. ‘Suppression’ sounds bad – but what those proposing this Bill mean by it is Christians saying certain actions should be avoided as sinful. Restraining our desires is universally accepted as a moral good – but here it is rebranded as ‘suppression’ to justify its criminalisation.

Removing the ‘professional licence’ of faith leaders also sounds like a reasonable enough punishment for those who are found guilty of a crime. But when the offence is upholding orthodox biblical teaching, the Report is actually calling for church ministers to be beholden to Government-approved liberal theology.

In recent years we have seen numerous cases of Christian groups being refused the use of venues because of their beliefs. But the courts have been clear that the Christian sexual ethic is ‘worthy of respect in a democratic society’ and it is unlawful discrimination to refuse access on this basis. But the ‘expert’ group has decided that despite these views being ‘worthy of respect’, public buildings should not host Christians who fall foul of the extraordinary new law. 

Another clear failing of the Report is its inability to understand the importance of parental freedom. Christian parents must be free to discourage their children from unhelpful or dangerous sexual activity. They must be able to counsel their children to be comfortable in their own skin. Yet here we find that parents who do not readily affirm their children’s chosen identity face even ‘withdrawal of their parental or guardianship rights’. This prospect of LGBT ideology being foisted upon everyday family life is truly terrifying.

We must therefore pray that the Scottish Government would not bring forward a Bill that would trample on free speech and religious freedom. We must also pray that pastors and church leaders would remain free to pray and care for people and that Christian parents would be free to bring up their children in the faith.

Joanna Cook works in Public Affairs at The Christian Institute and is part of the Let Us Pray campaign. She is from Aberdeenshire and has a BA in Theology from the Highland Theological College.

Rev. Stephen Allison has been minister of Kiltarlity Free Church since 2018. He is also involved in the wider work of the Free Church of Scotland as an Assistant Clerk to the General Assembly and Public Engagement Coordinator.

[1] View the report online: https://www.gov.scot/binaries/content/documents/govscot/publications/independent-report/2022/10/expert-advisory-group-ending-conversion-practices-report-recommendations/documents/expert-advisory-group-ending-conversion-practices-report-recommendations/expert-advisory-group-ending-conversion-practices-report-recommendations/govscot%3Adocument/expert-advisory-group-ending-conversion-practices-report-recommendations.pdf

[2] See: https://parliamentnews.co.uk/horrific-experiments-at-university-of-birmingham-give-no-excuse-for-banning-prayer/

[3] See: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-11101415/Parents-counsellors-face-prosecution-gender-transition-children-suppression-law.html

Written by
Joel Upton
Joel manages the day-to-day administration of Affinity working behind the scenes on anything from answering emails and producing our resources to managing our finances. Joel is a member of Christ Church Haywards Heath. He is married to Alexa and has four children.

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