One of the first things I do each Saturday morning is check my email for the weekly opinion piece by Ray Pennings, who is Executive Vice President of the think tank Cardus. Ray always makes me think, sometimes challenging my beliefs. other times expressing my thoughts much more elequently what I have been thinking.
Ray’s take this morning on the passage of Bill C-4, the Canadian converson therapy law, said it so much better (and deeper) than I could, so I thought I would share it with you. You can subscribe to Ray’s newsletter here.
Most Canadian political observers were surprised on Wednesday afternoon when the opposition Conservatives made, and the House of Commons unanimously passed, a motion to fast-track the government’s conversion therapy legislation. There was little doubt the bill, a version of which had been extensively debated in the last Parliament and had passed the House but was before the Senate when the election was called (which ends all legislation that is still in process), would pass again. The Liberals had promised it and the NDP, Bloc, and a significant portion of the Conservative party was on record as supporting it. But few expected it to be fast-tracked without a debate of some sort.
When the previous bill was debated in the spring, critics didn’t raise concerns regarding coercive and abusive practices. Those were unanimously condemned. The more significant concern that was raised regarded the broad definitions in the legislation in which spiritual counselling regarding sexuality and identity could arguably be considered part of the definition of conversion therapy. As Father Raymond De Souza wrote during that debate, the very fact that the justice minister refused to accept simple amendments to clarify the matter which had been put forward by Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish leaders raised concerns that clergy might be at risk of going to prison for basic pastoral counselling.
The current bill added a “for greater clarity” clause (see Section 5 of the bill), but it appears to lack the straightforward clarity that religious leaders had requested to ensure that pastoral counselling would not get swept into a definition of conversion therapy by a zealous litigant supported by a judge. The unfortunate consequence of this is that in the next few years, it is almost certain that some local clergyperson who counsels someone coming to him for pastoral advice regarding sexual identity will end up in front of the courts.
(As an aside, I also note that the version of the bill Parliament debated pre-election restricted its application to minors. The justice minister had said in 2020 that this was necessary for the law to pass a constitutional challenge as adults would have the right to consent to therapy they sought. The current bill applies to adults and minors. The explanation as to why what was unconstitutional just 21 months ago is now legal in the mind of the Department of Justice sounds more sentimental than like a legal argument. It too, will likely require court action to clarify.)
Whatever your perspective on sexual identity, gender, and related issues, it is naïve to pretend that religiously-shaped perspectives or understandings of sexuality and identity will be changed by law. Obviously, there are significant cultural forces at work that take much more than a newsletter reflection to parse. Modern society understands sexuality not in terms of biology, behaviours, or desires but rather in terms of identity. There are challenges fitting this framework into a traditional Christian anthropology that asserts the fundamental human identity is found in our relationship to the divine. While the conflicts may express themselves in political votes and social mores – which in the present case makes candid public conversation on these issues challenging – it will take open conversion to achieve a consensus.
If the government had recognized the legitimacy of religious counselling in a clear and explicit manner, the immediate conflict might have been avoided. By refusing, the government is heading down a road of mixing foundational worldviews. Usually, it’s religious people that are accused of mixing church and state; on this file, it is the secularists who are insisting on doing it. Don’t misunderstand. I don’t think there was any meeting of some “let’s negate Christians” cabal within the government – the motives for making conversion illegal are for most a sincere desire to prevent abuse. But by misunderstanding the foundational religious framework within sexuality and marriage as understood by some, the government is setting up a pattern of the state seeking to govern religion. That is very problematic.
This might be more easily ignored if this were a one-off but it isn’t. Back in 2018, the same government incorporated an attestation in applications for businesses and charities to receive a subsidy for hiring students for summer jobs. It effectively required employers to declare their beliefs about abortion in order to qualify for a government program. There was a proposal in the Liberal platform in the recent election campaign which indicated that any charity which provided counselling to pregnant women and was pro-life would lose its charitable status. There have been noises about expanding human rights codes to incorporate specific items that would make it increasingly challenging for religious bodies to maintain charitable status.
None of these battles on its own is decisive. Notwithstanding the outrage on social media this week of “conspiracies” and “betrayals,” any attuned political observer realizes that after the conversion therapy bill passed the House of Commons last June, it had passed the political hurdles. The discussion is now at a cultural, not a political level.
What worries me most is the fact that many of our secularist neighbours, and especially some who are MPs, misunderstand religion to the extent that they think politics can fix stuff that it can’t fix. Politics follows culture but using coercive powers of the state to impose culture is a different form of conversion therapy. Using the power of the state to try and impose religious perspectives didn’t work centuries ago when one religion tried to impose adherence to another religion. It won’t work today either.
The use of practices and treatments to forcibly cause anyone to change their sexual behaviour is something to be rightly condemned. But to refuse to distinguish between abuse and legitimate religious counselling betrays a misunderstanding of religion that has consequences far beyond this bill. Parliament may succeed in fast-tracking a piece of legislation, but questions about what it means to be human are not defined by, nor reliant upon, parliamentary debate.