Ashers Bakery charity threatens legal action over gay conversion therapy law

The lobby group which backed Ashers Bakery in the so-called ‘gay cake’ row has now threatened legal action if the Stormont Executive attempts to put restrictions on prayer when it legislates against gay conversion therapy.

By Philip Bradfield
Tuesday, 1st June 2021, 3:07 pm
Updated Tuesday, 1st June 2021, 3:26 pm
LGBT campaigners picket a film screening at Townsend Presbyterian Church in Belfast in 2019 in which Matthew Grech told of his conversion to Christianity and leaving his LGBT identity.
 Picture By: Arthur Allison.
LGBT campaigners picket a film screening at Townsend Presbyterian Church in Belfast in 2019 in which Matthew Grech told of his conversion to Christianity and leaving his LGBT identity. Picture By: Arthur Allison.

The Assembly recently passed a non binding motion urging Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey to legislate for a ban on conversion therapy “in all its forms”. The DUP unsuccessfully attempted to introduce an amendment to exempt religious prayer and counselling.

But now the Christian Institute (CI), which backed Ashers Bakery in Belfast in its appeal against being found guilty of discrimination in the so called ‘gay cake case’, has issued a legal warning to the NI Executive.

The CI says it does not oppose a ban that protects people from “harmful pseudo-medical practices” but adds that a leading QC has now advised that a ban which includes prayer, preaching and pastoral work. It also says legislation runs the risk of breaching the right of parents not to support a child’s gender transition.

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In a written opinion for the CI, human rights expert Jason Coppel QC claimed that definitions of conversion therapy proposed by activists would criminalise the legitimate expression of religious beliefs.

In a hard-hitting letter to the Executive’s Communities Minster, Deirdre Hargey MLA, lawyers for the CI warned: “the enclosed legal Opinion demonstrates how a badly drafted CT ban could inadvertently criminalise those in churches and other faith communities who adhere to traditional beliefs about marriage and gender identity and be open to legal challenge. Should any proposals from the Department infringe upon the everyday church activities outlined within the enclosed Opinion our client will not hesitate, where appropriate, to seek a judicial review.”

CI also sent the letter to Naomi Long MLA, Justice Minister; Robin Swann MLA, Health Minister; Paula Bradley MLA, Chair of the Communities Committee; Paul Givan MLA, Chair of the Justice Committee; and Colm Gildernew MLA, Chair of the Health Committee.

Simon Calvert, Deputy Director for Public Affairs at The Christian Institute, said: “The CI is not opposed to banning conversion therapy if that means protecting people from dangerous medical practices.

“But a founder of the Ban Conversion Therapy campaign is on record as saying ‘Spiritual guidance is really just religious speak for conversion therapy’ and that ‘the pernicious power of prayer must be dealt with’.

“A ban on spiritual guidance and prayer would be tyrannical and unworkable. Do they expect police, prosecutors and courts to decide which kinds of prayer are criminal and which are not? Most people would be horrified by the prospect of someone being convicted for praying ‘the wrong kind of prayer’. We must not allow activists to exploit legitimate concerns as a cover for pursuing anti-religious agendas.”

A spokesperson for the Department for Communities responded that conversion therapy is “cruel and inhumane”.

“The Minister stated that so called ‘conversion therapy’ is a cruel and inhumane practice and it should be ended now,” the spokesperson added. “The Minister wishes to explore all legislative options and officials have commenced work to inform the drafting of the legislation in the context of the work the Department is doing on the wider LGBTQI + Strategy.

“Officials are working with stakeholders and colleagues in other departments and jurisdictions to learn from experience and to consider where there are gaps in the law and, importantly, what powers we already have to end this practice.

“This process takes time and all necessary steps will be taken to ensure that any legislation would be fit for purpose and sufficiently robust.”

Aisling Twomey, Policy and Advocacy Manager with the Rainbow Project, is part of the Ban Conversion Therapy (BCT) campaign which has lobbied MLAs on the matter.

She recently told the News Letter: “Conversion therapy, reparative therapy and all other so-called interventions are rightly condemned by reputable mental health, counselling and psychotherapy bodies around the world as unethical and harmful to the people who are subjected to these practices. Over 400 faith leaders have joined the campaign globally to call for an end for this type of practice.”

She added: “This ban must include all conversion therapy practices across public and private spheres whether within healthcare, religious and cultural or traditional settings.

“The significant problem caused by creating loopholes in this ban based on freedom of religious belief or religious practices leaves LGBTQI+ vulnerable people at risk of further harm.”

Gay conversion practices were banned in Victoria, Australia three months ago. The law there goes further than one passed in Queensland last year in that it prohibits conversion practices not only in healthcare settings but also in religious settings.

This includes “carrying out a religious practice, including but not limited to, a prayer-based practice, a deliverance practice or an exorcism”.

Last month in the campaigners called on the government to stop delaying the ban of conversion therapy in England and Wales.

The ban for England and Wales was announced in the Queen’s Speech - but it will be preceded by a consultation which will consider religious freedoms and how to protect accredited professionals.

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