Look out Albertans! Bylaw Bob coming to a religious gathering near you!
A wave of conversion therapy bans has spread across the province of Alberta. Maybe not as fast as COVID-19, but fast enough. These by-laws are harsh and heavy-handed. Yet one municipality after another passed them with relative ease. Fort McMurray. St. Albert. Edmonton. Spruce Grove. Rocky Mountain House. And finally Calgary and Lethbridge. Many concerned citizens spoke out. The largest pushback took place in Calgary. There were phone calls, face to face meetings, Zoom teleconferences, and a public hearing with a record number of oral submissions from the public, including from ARPA Canada.
The Calgary bylaw defines “conversion therapy” and “business” so broadly that it would punish Christian pastors, teachers, and counsellors for teaching basic Christian sexual ethics. It would similarly punish those from other faith communities who also do not subscribe to the secular humanist religion of the Calgary government. The bylaw was enacted on May 25 of this year. In this article, I want to recap and reflect on the public hearings at City Council. There are important lessons to learn and this issue isn’t going away.
Recapping ARPA’s submission to City Council
ARPA Canada participated in the Standing Policy Committee meetings on conversion therapy in Calgary, Alberta on May 13-14, 2020. ARPA Canada opposed this conversion therapy bylaw which allows municipal authorities to enforce bylaws that overreach into the theology of faiths and religions. As Alberta Manager, I presented to Calgary City Council as its members deliberated whether to enact one of the most intrusive and expansive conversion therapy laws in Canada.
I pointed out a glaring inconsistency with the proposed bylaw. Counselling a young man to not hook up with girls is fine, under the bylaw. In this case, a spiritual leader can talk about God’s good purposes in creating sexuality and marriage. But counselling a young man who shares his desire to have sex with men is off-limits. According to the bylaw, the counsellor would be punished because such activity could be considered a ‘practice, treatment, or service’ intended to ‘repress or reduce non-heterosexual attraction or sexual behaviour.’ This would also apply to a Muslim Imam, a Jewish Rabbi, a Christian pastor, or a Sikh youth leader.
I explained that religious leaders will need to turn to bylaw officers to determine what they may or may not say, pray or not pray since the law is so broad and vague. I reminded the council that children and adults should be free to speak to religious counsellors and spiritual leaders to help them with questions of identity, sexuality, and belonging without being investigated or penalized by a bylaw officer.
Finally, I assured the council that ARPA Canada and its supporters affirm the inherent dignity and worth of each individual. Every person is a unique creation made in the image of God. We love all people and want them protected in law. The Christian community supports banning abusive practices, like aversion therapy. Pastoral help or religious counselling or teaching is not conversion therapy. Religious instruction promoting healthy sexuality is not conversion therapy. Counselling to help someone control their urges and behaviour is not conversion therapy.
Lowlights from the proceedings (you can’t make this stuff up)
There was a particularly concerning irregularity during the hearings. Dr. (not medical*) Kristopher Wells, who has lobbied for conversion therapy bylaws across Alberta, was given time before and during the proceedings to provide his ‘expert opinion’ and serve as a ‘fact-checker’ on-the-fly. Furthermore, he was allowed to remain in the meeting after public submissions were closed, to weigh in. He was consulted during the question periods and debates. Councillors deferred to him as the final authority on what the law means, even though he has no legal expertise. In other words, an advocate for one side of this issue was appointed as judge of the truth and quality of the submissions of advocates for the other side. The entire proceedings were conducted in this one-sided manner. It was disturbing. (*I did not find what subject Wells has a Ph.D. in and where he obtained it, but he teaches in the Education program of a university in northern Alberta and seems to be touted mainly for his activism.)
At one point the city’s full-time, in-house lawyer said she needed to defer to Kristopher Wells on the definition of conversion therapy in the bylaw because she didn’t know what the answer to the legal question was – but she was being asked about its scope and asserting that it doesn’t violate religious freedom. The whole point of these hearings was to review the legal definition!
Like their lawyer, the councillors didn’t seem to know what the bylaw really means and how it would be enforced. Despite not knowing what it means or understanding its scope, they blithely reassured everyone it won’t capture anything they were concerned about. Wells knows what it means, and that was good enough for the councillors. It seems bylaw officers and lawyers and judges will have to consult with Wells in the future. Next, maybe they’ll create a special conversion therapy tribunal with Wells as prosecutor, jury, and judge. This is the same man who tweeted “fine the hell out of them” in reply to a pastor’s letter to the editor that criticized the city of Spruce Grove for not defining “conversion therapy” carefully in its bylaw.
During the proceedings, one councillor asked if the bylaw would apply to a public event with a guest speaker. The response was: “Likely.” A conversation in the hallway of a church between a pastor and a congregant where the pastor offers counselling would constitute “proof of transaction” and “advertising.” Even word of mouth is a violation of the bylaw, though the councillors thought that would be hard to prove. City Council “administration” openly admitted that violations of this bylaw will often be tough to prove and enforce. But when provided with more specific scenarios (like a sermon, a casual conversion, or a scheduled meeting discussing sex/gender issues) they typically responded that it would be illegal under the bylaw.
Wells’ role in the proceedings was bizarre. He is not a city councillor or city employee, yet he spoke as part of the municipal “administration”, which included the city’s lawyers (public employees). He was more than a witness and played a much more dominant role than even an expert witness. Expert witnesses can be examined, challenged, and countered with other experts. But not Dr. Wells. The city council treated him as the ultimate authority. He went as far as to claim the bylaw “does not restrict religious thoughts or beliefs”, which is plainly false.
Some final remarks on the proceedings
It was very unsettling listening to these proceedings. Concerned people presented their experiences and then councillors ask them unrelated and unfair questions, dodging the main issue. One councillor launched off into a list of organizations that oppose conversion therapy and then asked the presenters (members of the public) why they think that is – why so many organizations oppose conversion therapy and they don’t. The fact that “conversion therapy” is never precisely defined enables them to use this tactic. No doctor would ever do conversion therapy so why would you, pastor? Well, what are we talking about? Using drugs or causing physical pain to try to change someone’s sexual inclinations? Does anybody still do that?
Indeed, the medical associations don’t support it and the medical professions don’t practice it. It was heartbreaking where sincere, thoughtful participants were put on the spot and could only reply with “I’m not sure I’m qualified to answer that”. The councillors were finding reasons to dismiss people without engaging with the real issues they raised and even mistreated their own constituents.
The problem is that the law as written, despite municipal leaders’ protestations to the contrary, could easily capture pastoral counselling intended to help a person live out the Christian sexual ethic, which is admittedly demanding and which all persons (“heterosexual” or not) fail to live up to completely. Many people, including same-sex-attracted, want to live out this ethic and explained this to council. Indeed, there are significant health benefits to having fewer partners, controlling one’s sexual urges, and avoiding anal sex, which can cause serious health problems (aside from STIs). Yet the media have largely ignored this growing chorus of critical voices, including from members of “sexual minorities.”
After listening to the Council proceedings, it was clear that the City’s administration did not understand how broad its law was.
Were our efforts worth it? Yes! People told important personal stories that will leave an impact. We learned about and connected with people who are deeply grateful for Christian counselling. And we learned some other valuable lessons:
- Shop local
Shop local. You’ve heard that before. The benefits for local communities are worth it, the experts say. Stimulate the local economy. Get better customer service. Bring character to your community. Get to know people. Well, the principles of getting to know and support the local business community apply to the local political community as well. Know what’s going on in your town. Build relationships with your town councillors. Bylaws are passed regularly with little to no involvement from the most important stakeholders: members of the local community!
Municipal elections are worth getting involved in. Mayors and municipal councils can pass bylaws that have a huge impact on their communities. And they often do so with very little knowledge and involvement of the citizens they represent. Take the experts’ advice. Shop local!
A municipal council can have a more direct impact on your life than your provincial and federal politicians. And to boot, turnout for municipal elections is usually very low. That means everyone who actually does vote and get involved can have a significant impact.
Take the experts’ advice. Shop local! Get involved in municipal politics. Better yet, run for town or city council. Follow what’s going on in your municipalities. Shop local.
- Pushback makes them change their talking points
When the wave of conversion therapy bylaws began in Alberta’s northern and central communities, it was clear that the bylaw would have an impact on prayer, conversations between parents and children, churches, and Christian teachers and counsellors. For example, during a public hearing for Edmonton’s by-law, Dr. Wells nodded vehemently in agreement when asked if the city council was going to go after churches to make sure they are “not praying the gay away.”
But by the time the wave hit Southern Alberta, bylaw advocates were assuring Christians that would not be the case. Prayer is okay. No impact on conversations with parents. Cities have no jurisdiction to punish pastors, teachers, and counsellors. Finally, in Lethbridge, city councillors assured their citizens that they have no jurisdiction to punish pastors, teachers, and counsellors for teaching basic Christian sexual ethics. Another example of not knowing the moral and legal ramifications of a bylaw, perhaps. Yet these are also statements that a lawyer can use to try to defend a church in court. These are also statements we can use to hold councillors accountable.
Christians pushed back. They forced the activists to rethink their talking points. We weren’t fooled.
- We’ve got this right
These bylaws are deeply ideological.These bylaws are not credible. We should be alarmed when councillors turn to a (non-legal) “expert” to consult on legal questions when publicly-paid lawyers don’t know what’s going on. City councillors made bold assertions that their bylaw would not interfere with religious teaching or open scientific inquiry. But if you read Wells’ report, which the administration cites in support of its bylaw, you’ll realize that Wells, at least, intends this.
This bylaw wave ended in Lethbridge. Two brave city councillors there pushed for a public hearing. Council decided that there would be no public hearing. This would make Lethbridge the only city that would not allow the public to deliver oral presentations. Why? Supposedly because it would cause too much trauma to those in favour of the bylaw. Imagine: you cannot debate a public policy issue because one side will be traumatized, even though nobody is forcing them to watch. Seem bizarre? It’s another sign of the other side’s weakness.
Are we crazy? Are we overreacting? Are we wasting our time? No. We’ve got this right.
We are thankful that many other like-minded people voiced their stories and their reasonable, substantive criticisms. We encourage all our supporters from across Canada to stay engaged on this issue. In short order, the federal government will likely table legislation to add a criminal ban on “conversion therapy”. Bylaw Bob will be getting some reinforcements from the police. Coming to a church near you!
So, please pray for our country, our provinces, and our municipalities. Ask God to intervene and give His people wisdom, courage, and generous love. Pray also for our civil authorities that their eyes may be opened to how unwise and unjust these laws are and pray that God would reach the hearts and minds of activists who are targeting churches and pushing for this law. Only God can change their hearts and we need to pray that God would show them a love so great, they will realize the only identity worth embracing is Christ.
Ed Hoogerdyk is the Alberta Manager for ARPA Canada