The act of prayer under the Andrews government’s proposed Conversion Therapy Bill could soon land Victorians in jail, thereby violating religious freedom and parental rights, a conservative think tank has said.
The report released by Menzies Research Centre comes as the controversial Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Bill (pdf) is set to be debated in Victoria’s Legislative Council on Thursday.
Under the proposed bill, “prayer” will be a criminal offence if its purpose is to “change or suppress a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.” The bill goes further than a similar law passed in Queensland last year, by prohibiting conversion practices that cause injury or serious injury not only in healthcare settings but also in religious settings.
A survey of 500 Victorian residents aged 18 and over conducted by the think tank found that while 60 percent of Victorians aged 18 or over support the right to change their gender, only 25 percent think that saying a prayer for a person struggling with gender identity should be a criminal offence; 85 percent reject the right of the government to control the content of prayers.
Additionally, almost 90 percent say it is important to be able to speak openly and honestly with a close family member under the age of 18 who is considering changing their gender.
“While Australians are broadly accepting of individual choices, whether on gender or matters of faith, the proposal to make it illegal to pray for someone is a step way too far for most people,” Nick Cater, executive director of the Menzies Research Centre, told Newscorp’s Herald Sun.
“Victorian MPs should have the confidence to throw out these proposals that are rejected by a clear majority of voters across the political spectrum.”
Several religious leaders have also raised issue with the bill, including Melbourne’s Catholic Archbishop Peter Comensoli and Bishop Brad Billings of the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne.
“(The bill) has some potentially serious unintended consequences in respect to fundamental human rights such as the freedom of speech, the protection of religious belief and freedom of conscience,” Bishop Billings said in a statement to AAP.
“It potentially criminalises the provision of pastoral care and may limit the ability of parents to guide their children.”
Attorney-General Jaclyn Symes told The Age: “The new laws strike the right balance between protecting people from the serious harm caused by change or suppression practices, while respecting the rights to freedom of speech and freedom of religion.”
“We consulted closely with survivors, LGBTIQ+ organisations and religious organisations on the legislation to make sure it is effective in stamping out abhorrent change and suppression practices once and for all.”
Andy Meddick from the Animal Justice Party, Reason Party MP Fiona Patten and Samantha Ratnam of the Greens confirmed on Feb. 2 they will back the Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Bill.
The Victorian Legislative Assembly passed the Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Bill on Dec. 10.
An amendment to pause the bill, which the opposition Liberal Party put forward before Parliament closed for the year, failed. All 55 MPs in the chamber voted in favour for the bill, while members of the opposition were not present.
AAP contributed to this report.