THE UK government has outraged transgender lobbyists by changing its Conversion Therapy Bill. Concerns that banning conversion therapy on the basis of gender identity could lead to therapists being criminalised for helping patients with gender dysphoria appear to have changed ministers’ minds. This aspect has now been dropped.

However, perhaps even more worrying is the fact that the existing bill, if passed, risks criminalising Christians who attempt to dissuade people from being gay.

As a devout atheist who has actively supported gay rights, I’m amazed that almost nothing has been said about this aspect of the bill. It will be interesting to see what the exact wording of the new law will be, because at the moment it would appear to be a serious threat to religious freedom, indeed to freedom of conscience itself.

The name of the bill itself is weird and conjures up images of someone being tortured by being strapped to a chair with electrodes stuck on their head, but this is not what the bill is about, as this is clearly already illegal. Indeed, the wording of the bill and the lack of a clear definition of what “conversion therapy” actually is, is part of the problem.

Using coercion to force someone to change their beliefs is criminal. The bill, however, talks about not only coercion but “manipulation”. Based on this definition, if it can be called a definition, there is the potential that anyone who attempts to pursued someone from desisting from involvement in a gay relationship could be criminalised.

I, like most people, think that any attempt to criminalise homosexuality or limit a person’s freedom to decide who they have a relationship with is wrong. I totally disagree with Christian ideas about homosexuality. But I also recognise that in a free and liberal society people must be free to believe and to preach about whatever they like.

Freedom of conscience and arguments around religious freedom were the starting-point for our ideas about freedom of speech. However, many of those who have campaigned for the Conversion Therapy Bill argue that even “Spiritual guidance” about sexual orientation is “inherently coercive”.

Jayne Ozanne, who has campaigned for the new law and who has spoken at the Scottish government’s equalities committee, argues that “there is no such thing as a simple, loving prayer because it comes from a place of saying that who you are is unacceptable”.

Many would agree with her that it is unacceptable, at the level of disagreement, but are we saying that non-coercive religious practices or even beliefs should be made criminal? This could include the beliefs of parents who oppose homosexuality.

What should be a discussion of or challenge to religious beliefs is here turned into a new type of coercion by the state, so that even voluntary discussions between adults is turned into a discussion about “manipulation” and we end up criminalising certain outlooks that we disagree with.

In Scotland, unsurprisingly, it seems likely that a bill of this kind will include the criminalisation of those who question a person’s sexual orientation and gender identity. This would mean that questioning a person’s trans identity could also be illegal.

Matthew Hyndman, co-founder of the Ban Conversion Therapy Campaign, asserts that prayer has a “pernicious power” and “must be dealt with”. Dr Helen Webberley of believes that saying “If you have a vagina you are a girl” is a form of conversion therapy. Essentially, for these campaigners, expressing an opinion or challenging an identity or type of behaviour is understood to be so harmful that it must be made criminal.

But this argument could ultimately be made about almost any outlook or idea. Some gay lobby groups and individuals argue there is a difference between questioning a person’s sexual orientation and questioning their actual biological sex, but in principle, they’re wrong. Either we live in a free society where people can express their beliefs freely or we do not. If the UK bill is passed, there is a serious danger that this freedom will be lost.

Part of the problem appears to be that we increasingly treat individuals as profoundly vulnerable and in need of protection, not only from others but also from themselves. With such an infantilised view , strongly-held opinions increasingly come to be seen as coercive, manipulative and abusive; freedom comes to be understood as dangerous and something we all need to be protected from. The UK Conversion Therapy Bill is a threat to our basic freedoms and should be opposed.


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