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Calls for end to 'harmful' prayer in conversion therapy

by Donna Birrell

Leading human rights lawyers have called for a swift ban on so-called conversion therapy - practices which seek to suppress or change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. 

Earlier this year, the government announced it would bring forward legislation to ban the practice and consultations are underway. 

Members of the Ban Conversion Therapy Legal Forum yesterday published the Cooper Report which made a number of recommendations.  

The report recommends criminalising prayer that seeks to suppress or change a person’s identity, but permitting prayer that seeks to help someone come to terms with who they are. It also recommends using the term, 'practice' rather than 'therapy' :

"This avoids confusion as to whether the word ‘therapy’ refers solely to procedures of a professional or medical nature, particularly given that the majority of instances of conversion practices occur predominantly in religious and cultural contexts. Further, the term ‘therapy’ is highly misleading given the harm such interventions are known to cause." 

Chair of the Forum, Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, said : 

"We see criminalisation as essential when dealing with human-rights abuses, as this draws a clear line as to what acts will and will not be tolerated in a civilised society. This should sit alongside new civil-law measures, such as protection orders, which will help provide immediate support to those most at risk, such as LGBT+ children and vulnerable adults. This will ensure that perpetrators are left in no doubt that if they continue their harmful practices, they will face the full force of the law."

On the subject of prayer, the report, which was commissioned by the Ozanne Foundation, recommends criminalising condemnatory prayer that seeks to suppress or change a person’s identity, but permitting prayer that seeks to help someone come to terms with who they are :

"The right to manifest religion and belief, such as through prayer, cannot be construed to license and permit individuals to inflict physical or psychological harm, or significantly risk a person to suffer harm. There can therefore be no exemption for such conversion practices on the basis that they take the form of worship or other practices rooted in spirituality.

"Conversion practices provided by religious institutions and religious leaders, such as intensive prayer regimens and/or religious counselling, have been found to frequently result in deep shame, low self-esteem, and internalised self-hatred leading to profound mental health problems. This shows how coercive these practices can be.

"The Forum recognises that exempting prayer that is directed at an individual with a predetermined purpose would lead to a significant loophole that would be open to abuse, especially as this exemption would also exclude exorcisms that are conducted as a form of conversion practice from a ban. This type of exemption would be misguided given that a great number of conversion practices are prayer-based and given that they are often conducted in a religious context and environment.

"The Forum stresses that the ban would not criminalise any prayer that seeks to help an individual come to a point of peace and acceptance about their sexual orientation or gender identity, that is which does not have a predetermined purpose.

"The ban must apply generally and not differentiate between secular, religious, or cultural contexts. Conversion practices are equally harmful irrespective of their context and can be exacerbated by the additional stigma and pressure that are experienced in a religious or cultural setting. The majority of conversion practices are conducted by individuals who are not professionally trained in therapeutic practices, such as religious leaders or members of an individual’s community. Therefore, limiting a ban to the medical professions would not capture the primary source of these practices."

Many groups argue that a ban could infringe religious freedoms and is being challenged by a number of Christian groups. 

Earlier this year, the Evangelical Alliance warned the Prime Minister that a conversion therapy ban should not ban prayer or the ability to seek pastoral support. It's UK director, Peter Lynas said :

"We think a balance can be sought. We do need to end the harmful practices, but we also need to make sure that people can seek pastoral support and prayer...there are people already contacting us saying they're concerned about praying for somebody else, because it could fall under this or be misinterpreted so we're asking for clear guidance to make sure that people can pray with one another."

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