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Q & A: Bill S-202 and Conversion Therapy

23 December 2019
Theme:

Q: What is conversion therapy?

A: Discussions of conversion therapy often reference a regrettable history of coercive and abusive practices, such as aversion or electric shock therapy and the use of psychotropic drugs. It is believed that such physical and chemical efforts to change a person’s sexual orientation no longer take place in Canada.

There is no standard definition for conversion therapy. In 2015, the Canadian Psychological Association defined conversion therapy, or reparative therapy, as “any formal or therapeutic attempt to change the sexual orientation of bisexual, gay or lesbian individuals to heterosexual …” The cities and provinces that have proposed or put bans in place have used different definitions. In current public discussions, conversion therapy is usually understood to be any medical or therapeutic effort to try to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

However, conversion therapy is increasingly being discussed in much broader terms; it extends to attempts to reduce sexual expression and often includes informal support or spiritual care offered in religious settings.

Q: What is Bill S-202?

A: Bill S-202 is a private member’s bill introduced by a Senator. It would ban advertising for conversion therapy and receiving financial or material consideration for conversion therapy for youth under 18 years of age. Conversion therapy is defined in the bill as “any practice, treatment or service designed to change an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity or to eliminate or reduce sexual attraction or sexual behaviour between persons of the same sex.” The bill is online at https://www.parl.ca/DocumentViewer/en/43-1/bill/S-202/first-reading

Q: Will this bill ban religious conversion or make it a crime to be a Christian?

A: Bill S-202 is focused specifically on matters of sexual orientation and gender identity and does not ban or address proselytism or religious conversion. The bill creates an offence related to actions that are designed to change an individual’s sexual orientation, attraction or behaviour or gender identity. It does not refer to faith or belief in God.

Q: What are the concerns with Bill S-202 and other efforts to ban conversion therapy?

A: Bill S-202 should not directly impact churches. It could affect organizations who advertise conversion therapy or receive payment for offering support groups or counselling for individuals seeking to live out their sexuality in the manner they choose. We are also concerned with the breadth of the definition in S-202 and by the prospect that the government could adopt this definition in its anticipated changes to the Criminal Code. Further, while the activities prohibited by S-202 are focused on advertising and paid services, future government legislation could apply this definition to a broader range of activities, which could then be problematic for churches, religious officials and/or parents.

Some of our concerns include:

  • Bill S-202 has a very broad definition of conversion therapy that includes eliminating or reducing sexual attraction. This definition could capture support groups, counselling or spiritual care that a person voluntarily seeks out in order to help them live out their sexuality in the manner they choose.
  • The bill creates a criminal offence for offering treatment designed to change gender identity and specifies that this does not include "a surgical sex change or any related service." This puts criminal limits on some beliefs and expressions related to gender identity, but not others.
  • The bill prohibits conversion therapy from being offered to minors. It is not clear how broadly the definition of conversion therapy will be applied and what the implications will be, particularly for youth with gender dysphoria.

We are also concerned that in discussions of conversion therapy no distinction is being made between therapy or treatment offered with the express intent of changing a person’s sexual orientation or identity and therapy or counselling that helps a person work through questions regarding their orientation or identity.

Q: Why is this issue so sensitive?

A: Given the historical context of conversion therapy, it must be made clear that no one supports abusive and coercive practices. However, given the breadth of the definitions used in this legislation and in other laws and bylaws, we have very deep concerns about its potential impact on persons seeking to work through questions regarding their orientation as well as on freedom of religion and expression. We also recognize that those who advocate for it are motivated by a desire to prevent despair and other negative emotions that can lead to suicidality that are often associated with therapeutic efforts to change an individual’s sexual orientation.

We seek to have freedom of religion and expression upheld and protected, and we also affirm the value and worth of all people (from which religious freedom flows), treating all with respect and love, as God’s creation.

Q: What is the EFC doing about this?

A: The EFC is monitoring the issue of conversion therapy closely and working on preparing responses. The EFC’s At Issue column in the Nov/Dec 2019 Faith Today outlines some of our concerns. The EFC will prepare resources and sample letters when a bill is introduced in the House of Commons and on Bill S-202 as it progresses.

Q: What’s next?

A: Second reading debate on Bill S-202 will resume in the Senate in early February, 2020. If the bill passes Second Reading it will be sent to a Senate Committee for further study and possible amendment. The EFC will make a submission to the Committee. If the bill is passed by the Senate, it will go to the House of Commons to repeat the process of debate, study by a committee and votes. For more information on the process for a bill to become law, see the EFC’s infographic.

The government has indicated it will introduce changes to the Criminal Code to ban conversion therapy. The Prime Minister’s mandate letter to the Minister of Justice, released in December, includes changes to ban conversion therapy as one of the tasks for him to pursue during the new Parliament. We don’t know yet what this legislation will include. If Bill S-202 passes in the Senate, the government may also pass it in the House of Commons, or may instead incorporate elements of the bill in the legislation they put forward.

Q: What can we do about this?

A: Pray. In anticipation of the debate which is to come, pray for Christian witness that reflects the love and grace of God that is extended to all of us. Pray for wisdom for all of us in Christian communities as we engage on a difficult and sensitive issue. Finally, pray for our political leaders and for our country.

Develop a Relationship. One of the most effective ways to engage with political leaders is to develop a relationship with them before a concern arises. Take the opportunity now to send a message of congratulations to your MP on their election. If there is an opportunity to meet your MP over the Christmas break, introduce yourself and let them know you’re praying for them.

Prepare to Engage. The EFC will prepare resources and sample letters, when a bill is introduced in the House of Commons and on Bill S-202 as it progresses. Watch for these resources and then contact your MP or your province’s Senators.