Public Engagement Group responds to Scottish Govt consultation on ending Conversion Practices in Scotland

The Public Engagement Group has responded to the Scottish Government Consultation’s on Ending Conversion Practices in Scotland.
Scottish Parliament

The Public Engagement Group of the Free Church of Scotland has responded to the Scottish Government Consultation’s on Ending Conversion Practices in Scotland.

Given the serious impact these proposals could have on church leaders and parents the Public Engagement Group is also encouraging Presbyteries, Congregations and Individuals within the Free Church of Scotland to respond to the Consultation before the deadline (2 April 2024).

The consultation states that “conversion practices” refer to acts which are intended to change or suppress a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

They are proposing a new criminal offence that would cover anyone providing a service or engaged in a coercive course of conduct where a specified individual experiences actual harm (whether physical or psychological).

They are also proposing the introduction of a Civil Protection Order which can be applied for by individuals, police, local authorities and in some cases third party organisations where there is “potential harm” to an individual or the wider public. Such an order can place almost any conditions on individuals provided the judge is satisfied they would reduce the likelihood of harm occurring. A breach of these orders would be a criminal offence.

The Free Church of Scotland utterly condemns abusive, coercive, and violent practices. These contradict Christian teaching. The Bible teaches that everyone is worthy of respect. Christians seek to embody the love of Jesus in every aspect of life, including discussions about sex and identity.

However, abusive practices are already illegal in Scots Law.  Even the Scottish Government Consultation document acknowledges that threatening or abusive behaviour is already rightly illegal under s.38 of the Criminal Justice and Licensing (Scotland) Act 2010. Accordingly, the new proposals are designed to criminalise practices which are not threatening or abusive. The Public Engagement Group are clear in their response that “Other practices might be considered distasteful or wrong but in a free society it is government overreach and a disproportionate interference with the rights to freedom of religion and family life” to make practices which are not threatening or abusive illegal.

The Public Engagement Group says the definition of “conversion practices” lacks clarity, is unworkable in practice and is potentially so broad that virtually any practice which is not “affirming” of those who identify as homosexual, or transgender could be criminalised. This would mean potentially criminalising conversations, pastoral care, sermons, prayer and parental guidance. And even if these are not caught by the wide ambit of the legislation the existence of the offence will have a chilling effect on individuals’ willingness to engage in reasonable discussion around matters of sexual orientation or gender identity due to the fear of prosecution.

Within the Free Church of Scotland, we do not endorse coercive practices and we invite people to voluntarily respond to the gospel. As a denomination, the Free Church of Scotland passed church legislation in 1846 disowning all “persecuting principles of religion” meaning we do not force our beliefs on anyone. However, the definitions used for a coercive course of conduct could easily be made to cover the normal practices of churches and ordinary parents (whether religious or not).

The consultation document says that coercion includes ‘emphatic directives accompanied by forceful statements intended to pressure the individual’ (paragraph 103). It is easy to see how urging someone to repent to avoid the judgement of God could be deemed to meet this threshold even thought this is an essential component of the biblical gospel.

The document also says that coercion will include “controlling of the victim’s day-to-day activities” and “pressuring the victim to act in a particular way” (paragraph 104).  This will have an extensive impact on parents (whether religious or not). Parents regularly control and pressure their children to behave in certain ways. This is normal parenting and in keeping with their rights to raise their children in accordance with their own faith and belief. If these proposals are enacted there is a risk that parents will be prosecuted merely for trying to guide their children to the path they believe is best for them or to guide them away from life altering medical treatments such as puberty blockers.

The Public Engagement Group consider these proposals of the Scottish Government a serious threat to the spiritual independence of the church – one of the founding principles of the Free Church in 1843. We urge the Scottish Government to reconsider, and ask politicians in every party to respect religious liberty, and broader freedoms enshrined in human rights legislation, by rejecting these proposals.

The Group’s full response to the proposals can be read here.

The Public Engagement Group has also prepared a short guide to responding to the consultation for use by Presbyteries, Congregations and Individuals within the Free Church of Scotland. The guide is available here.

The Group would encourage as many as possible to take the time to respond to this consultation (deadline 2 April 2024) and to commit these issues to the Lord in prayer.

If you have any questions regarding these matters contact Stephen Allison, Public Engagement Coordinator for the Free Church of Scotland ([email protected]).