Cautions around conversion therapy

03 February 2020

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In the weeks before Christmas and as the new year began, the EFC received many calls and emails from Canadians concerned about the issue of conversion therapy, and specifically Bill S-202. We were not surprised. It is an important issue we have been tracking with for some time.

The topic of conversion therapy is arising across the country at all levels of government. Cities and provinces are passing laws and bylaws to ban the practice.

The federal government has signaled its intention to make changes to criminal law to prevent conversion therapy.

Often, the topic of conversion therapy is brought up in the context of abusive and coercive treatment in the past. The harmful history of conversion therapy includes practices like electric shock therapy and psychotropic drugs. Thankfully, these practices are no longer used in Canada.

Conversion therapy is usually understood to be medical or therapeutic treatment intended to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. However, one of the EFC’s primary concerns is that in current public discussions, conversion therapy is being described far more broadly, often including faith-based settings and activities like pastoral care and informal support groups. Therefore, the EFC has concerns about the religious freedom implications of these laws and policies and their possible impact on pastoral counselling and religious teaching.

Bill S-202, a private member’s bill in the Senate, would make it a criminal offence to advertise for conversion therapy or to receive a financial benefit for providing conversion therapy to youth under 18. 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.”

While Bill S-202 would not impact churches directly, its definition of conversion therapy is broad, including any practice designed to reduce same-sex attraction or behaviour. If the federal government uses that same broad definition in future legislation, this could be problematic for faith communities.

Very importantly, there appears to be no distinction made between therapy aimed at changing a person’s sexual orientation or identity and counselling that helps a person work through questions regarding their orientation or identity.

It is not clear exactly what impact Bill S-202 will have on medical and therapeutic treatment of children and youth with gender dysphoria. The bill allows “surgical sex change or any related service.” Most recent bans happening across Canada allow for “gender confirming” care only. This limits some beliefs and expressions related to gender identity, but not others, compromising the ability of therapists to treat children and youth with gender dysphoria according to their professional assessment of the patient’s circumstances and best interests.

Let us be clear. Coercion is always wrong. Therapy that hurts and harms has no place in secular practice, and certainly not within the walls of any church. Mistakes have been made both within and outside of churches. As always, we seek to honour God and love our neighbour.

Many of these conversion therapy laws and policies may prevent persons who are working through questions regarding their sexual orientation or gender identity from being able to access support to live according to their beliefs and wishes.

A second reading debate on Bill S-202 will resume in the Senate in early February 2020. If the bill passes, it goes to the House of Commons for more debate, study and votes. The EFC will make a submission to that committee.

We will be watching and working with our affiliates to respond in a measured, compassionate way.

How you can be involved

Pray for Christian witness reflecting the love and grace of God.
  • Pray for wisdom as we engage on a difficult and sensitive issue.
  • Relate. Take the opportunity now to send a message of congratulations to your MP on their recent election. Be positive and pleasant. Building a relationship now will make future communications more effective.
  • Engage. Watch for EFC resources and sample letters when a bill is introduced in the House of Commons and on Bill S-202.
Also in this issue: EFC research sheds light on religious landscape; Updating you on Canada’s most immediate issues; Message from the President; Searching for conference candidates; Hearts and hands: Insights from the work of the EFC's Blake Weller; and more.