Under the Change and Suppression (Conversion) Practices Bill 2020 (pdf)—introduced into the Victorian parliament on Nov. 25—“prayer” will be a criminal offence if its purpose is to “change or suppress a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.”
Speaking to The Age, Melbourne’s Catholic Archbishop Peter Comensoli said that while most mainstream Christian churches “reject coercive practices or activities that do harm to LGBT people,” the bill “goes well and truly beyond that.”
“Who I pray to, how I pray, what I pray for and most particularly, who I pray with, is not of concern to any government,” he said.
Victoria is the only Australian state to criminalise “prayer based practice” in its proposed bill—going one step further from recent legislation introduced in Queensland (pdf) and the Australian Capital Territory (pdf).
In a statement, Attorney-General Jill Hennessy said: “We’re sending a clear message: no one is ‘broken’ because of their sexuality or gender identity. These views won’t be tolerated in Victoria, and neither will these abhorrent practices.”
However if a person was to consent to “counselling chastity” with a religious leader, the mere offer of counselling would be regarded as a “change or suppression practice” and therefore punishable under the bill, according to Neil Foster, Associate Professor in Law at the University of Newcastle.
According to Freedom of Faith, a Christian legal think tank, the bill will grant the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission “extensive powers” to investigate the practices and teaching of church leaders, rabbis, imams, and other faith leaders.
The think tank added that “these powers will be weaponised to attack people of faith who do not share the same worldview on issues of sexuality and gender identity as the authors of this Bill.”
According to The Age, up to 10 percent of LGBT Australians are vulnerable to conversion therapy. The Guardian reported a case of conversion therapy where a person internalised “feelings of shame,” due to their “sexual deviance,” which in turn affected their “mental, physical, and spiritual health.”
Under the proposed legislation, any practitioners of conversion practices including community leaders will face up to 10 years’ jail if found guilty of causing injury. Advertising such services will result in a criminal penalty as well as a maximum fine of $10,000, and up to two years’ imprisonment awaits those who take the practice outside of Victoria.
In a 2019 report commissioned by the Victorian government, Engage Victoria participants acknowledged the right for religious freedom but “activities, behaviour, and practices that infringe on the rights of other human beings cannot be reconciled with the right to religious freedom.”
The Epoch Times reached out to Equality Australia for comment but did not receive a response at the time of publication.
However, in a statement, Anna Brown, CEO of Equality Australia said Victoria’s “world-leading legislation … is a great step towards ending the incredible harm caused by attempted LGBTQ+ conversion practices.”
Meanwhile, Foster said the bill will make it “unlawful” for some churches and other religious bodies to “openly teach and proclaim the doctrines of their faith in Victoria.”
Mentone Baptist Church senior pastor told The Age: “This is the most significant threat to religious freedom in Victoria … To explicitly mention prayer in Victorian legislation is astonishing.”
Faith leaders have urged Prime Minister Scott Morrison to implement a Religious Discrimination Act early next year when federal parliament returns from the summer holidays, News Corp’s The Australian reported.