Boris Johnson says conversion therapy ban won’t cover ‘prayer for sexual orientation or gender identity’

Conversion therapy ban in the UK must include trans people, MPs say

Boris Johnson has said any ban on conversion therapy will not apply to adults who seek “pastoral support” from churches while exploring their sexual orientation or gender identity.

The prime minister made the comments in a letter to the Evangelical Alliance, a Christian group that represents 3,500 churches across the UK.

“I want to reassure you that I take freedom of speech and freedom of religion very seriously,” Johnson wrote in the letter, seen by Premier Christian News.

“As the government made clear in 2018, when we first made our commitment to end conversion therapy, we will continue to allow adults to receive appropriate pastoral support (including prayer), in churches and other religious settings, in the exploration of their sexual orientation or gender identity.”

Johnson added: “Like you, I do not want to see clergy and church members criminalised for normal non-coercive activity.”

The prime minister was responding to a letter written by the Evangelical Alliance in March which claimed that a conversion therapy ban could stop evangelical Christians from “seeking and receiving support to live chaste lives”.

In the letter, which was addressed to Johnson, Evangelical Alliance director Peter Lynas acknowledged the “stigma, discrimination and harm” religion has caused to LGBT+ people. He also admitted that some of the more extreme forms of conversion therapy, such as electro-shock treatment and corrective rape, are wrong.

However, he said a full conversion therapy ban would be “highly problematic” for evangelical Christians as it could criminalise “common church activities”.

Lynas said his organisation would “defend people’s freedom to chose how they respond to their sexual orientation”.

“For evangelical Christians, the teaching of the Bible is clear that sexual activity is restricted to monogamous marriage between one man and one woman. For Christians who hold to this biblical teaching, it is essential that those who experience same-sex attraction are free to pursue and receive support to help them live in accordance with their beliefs,” he added, claiming an extensive conversion therapy ban would stop LGBT+ people from “seeking and receiving support to live chaste lives”.

Criticism came from Nancy Kelley, CEO at Stonewall, who told PinkNews: “We know that half of the conversion therapy practices that take place in the UK are faith-based. So any ban that has loopholes for any type of practice – including religious practices – will leave vulnerable LGBTQIA+ people at risk of further harm. It’s vital the UK government puts forward a full legal ban that protects LGBTQIA+ people from all forms of conversion therapy in every setting.”

Gay evangelical Christian Jayne Ozanne echoed these words, telling PinkNews that conversion therapy “must be banned, and perpetrators must face the full force of the law”.

“As a Christian, I too take freedom of religion revery seriously – up until the point that it causes harm,” Ozanne said.

“We know that spiritual abuse occurs in various religious settings, which is why there are already precedents of when the government has intervened to protect people from harm. In this context, prayer that allows true and free exploration of someone’s sexuality or gender identity, without a pre-determined outcome, is right and proper.

“However, prayer that focuses on ensuring someone conforms to a ‘norm’ causes untold damage, is degrading and leads many to contemplate taking their lives.”

The Conservative government committed to banning conversion therapy in 2018, but three years on, the practice remains legal across the UK.

In March, equalities minister Kemi Badenoch faced criticism from the LGBT+ community when she delivered a vague update on plans to outlaw the practice, with many expressing concern about her comments surrounding religion. Fears also grew that a conversion therapy ban would not include trans conversion therapy.

Equalities minister Liz Truss later tried to assuage the LGBT+ community’s concerns, telling ITV’s Peston that trans people would be protected by the ban.

Johnson’s letter casts doubt on the scope of a conversion therapy ban, which advocates have repeatedly warned must also include efforts to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity within religious contexts.

A government spokesperson told PinkNews: “We have made clear that we will take action to stamp out conversion therapy in this country. We have engaged with a variety of stakeholders as part of this process and will bring forward proposals shortly.”