Federal Liberals retable criminal ban on “conversion therapy” with major legal implications for pastoral ministry
On October 1, 2020 the federal Liberal government tabled Bill C-6 (which was before Parliament earlier this year as Bill C-8). The bill defines conversion therapy as any “practice, treatment or service designed to change a person’s sexual orientation to heterosexual or gender identity to cisgender, or to repress or reduce non-heterosexual attraction or sexual behaviour.”
In case that is unclear, let me apply it directly to the pastoral work of the church. This bill, if passed as written, would make it a criminal offence to help a person struggling with their sexual orientation (e.g. a same-sex attracted Christian) or sexual thoughts or behaviour (e.g. watching gay porn) or gender identity (e.g. believe they are a man trapped inside a female body) to bring their thoughts, words, and deeds into conformity with the Word of God. But the pastor or counsellor would be free to encourage a man to explore same-sex desires or experiment with same-sex behaviour. Similarly, encouraging a teen girl to love and appreciate and care for the female body God designed and paired with her soul would be a criminal act. But the opposite (encouraging a child or teen to experiment with change from cisgender to genderqueer, nonbinary, transgender, etc.) is permitted.
A major flaw of conversion therapy bans is that they lump together body-affirming counselling with other out-dated, harmful forms of conversion therapy.
Body-affirming counselling emphasizes that sexual orientation and gender identity are normatively linked to biological sex. This counselling involves the counsellor and client collaboratively exploring the unwanted sexual orientation or gender dysphoria and then defining the problem, the desired outcomes, and the path they will take to achieve those outcomes. If the client disagrees with their counsellor’s assessment, methods, or outcome(s), they can terminate their participation.
To limit its scope, the proposed law does not prohibit services or treatments related to a person’s “gender transition” (e.g. cross-sex hormones) or to a person’s “exploration of their identity” (vague, but likely contemplating “LGBT-friendly” counselling or psychiatric services).
Most of the legislation is focussed on how conversion therapy would be restricted. The legislation proposes to ban conversion therapy in five ways. It would prohibit:
- providing conversion therapy to a minor (anyone under 18);
- taking a minor outside the country to receive conversion therapy;
- causing a person (minor or adult) to undergo conversion therapy “against their will”;
- profiting from providing conversion therapy; and
- advertising conversion therapy.
The bill would also give the police the same powers to seize and censor advertisements for “conversion therapy” that they have in relation to child pornography.
The penalties for these offences include a maximum sentence of 5 years in prison and/or a hefty fine. And, in the Criminal Code, an “offence” means not only doing the deed but also:
(1) attempting it,
(2) aiding or abetting it (e.g. an elder setting up a meeting with a Christian counsellor for a ward member),
(3) counselling someone to commit the offence (e.g. a pastor teaching and encouraging an elder on how to counsel a member of their congregation), or
(4) being an accessory after the fact.
This (#2 in particular) means that if a board of elders decides together to proceed with biblical counselling around sexuality, all elders are potentially criminally liable, even if only the pastor is doing the counselling.
It is difficult to describe the scope of the proposed criminal ban on conversion therapy with precision because the terms “practice, treatment, or service” are not defined. It seems plain, however, that it would apply beyond services provided by regulated health professionals or licensed counsellors (other parts of the Criminal Code speak of medical practitioners and medical treatment, but not Bill C-6). What we would likely see is a progressive implementation of the ban, with police and prosecutors choosing the clearest cases early on, then using these precedents to pursue less obvious cases.
Justice Minister David Lametti explained his rationale for the ban, saying: “Conversion therapy is premised on a lie, that being homosexual, lesbian, bisexual or trans is wrong and in need of fixing. Not only is that false, it sends a demeaning and a degrading message that undermines the dignity of individuals.” And Bill C-6 states in its preamble: “conversion therapy … is based on and propagates myths and stereotypes about sexual orientation and gender identity, including the myth that a person’s sexual orientation and gender identity can and ought to be changed.” This language suggests that the government’s goal with this bill is to suppress particular religious beliefs (i.e. “myths”) and protect and promote other religious beliefs (i.e. secular humanist and gnostic beliefs) around anthropology, sexuality, and identity. For more on the deeply religious nature of this bill, check out this article.
Like it or not, believe it or not, Christians find their identity wholly and completely in the person and work of Jesus Christ. And so when they struggle with who they are and how they ought to live their lives in light of that reality, the answers will have implications for their sexual identity and sexual ethics. Christians also know that human dignity, our intrinsic worth, does not depend on which sexual impulses we give in to (or not) or repent of (or not). And Christians recognize the plain and obvious truth that many people can change and have changed their “gender identity” or “sexual orientation”, sometimes more than once. For example, many people – Christian or not – have regretted adopting a “transgender” identity and have “de-transitioned” back. Out of love and concern for people struggling with deep, existential questions of who they are or where they belong or how they should live, Christians have answers and Christians cannot abandon these questioning people to the dominant and destructive ideas of this age.
If Bill C-6 passes unamended, aspects of the church’s ministry (to youth in particular) in an age of confusion would be criminalized. Not only do pastors and counsellors face fines and prison time should they continue with biblically faithful counselling, but it would also be a very simple and logical next step to remove a church’s charitable status: why would the CRA give tax receipts to a so-called criminal organization? Through all this, the gospel witness would be marginalized, preventing more from hearing and experiencing the joy and freedom found in Christ Jesus.
In light of the preceding, ARPA Canada asks you to consider doing the following:
- Be in prayer, privately and corporately, asking God to preserve our freedom to boldly proclaim and apply the gospel to all of life and to protect vulnerable children from the destructive, isolating, and pagan ideas of secular humanism;
- Inform yourself by digging deeper into conversion therapy by reviewing ARPA Canada’s policy report on the topic, available online here;
- Download this Conversion Therapy action sheet and share it with your congregations, family, friends, with an encouragement to act on the calls to action therein.
- Send an email to their MP sharing your concerns with this new bill. We have drafted snippets for you to compose your letter using our EasyMail system here!
And may we all continue to pray and labour that God’s perfect will, not man’s fallen will, may be done here on earth as it is in heaven.