Canada’s Catholic bishops have criticized the “potential overreach” of a proposed government ban on conversion therapy, arguing that the legislation’s “very disconcerting ambiguity” poses a threat to freedom of religion.
On October 1, the Liberal Party government in Canada reintroduced a Bill, first put before the House of Commons on March 6, which would ban conversion therapy for minors and limit adults’ access to such therapy.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government proposes five new criminal offences related to conversion therapy in the legislation: causing a minor to undergo conversion therapy; removing a minor from Canada to undergo conversion therapy abroad; causing a person to undergo conversion therapy against their will; profiting from providing conversion therapy; and advertising an offer to provide conversion therapy.
The Bill defines such conversion therapy as “a practice that seeks to change an individual’s sexual orientation to heterosexual, to repress or reduce non-heterosexual attraction or sexual behaviours, or to change an individual’s gender identity to match the sex they were assigned at birth.”
Canada’s bishops, however, argued in an October 7 statement that such a broad definition of conversion therapy makes a comprehensive ban too “generic in its scope and ambiguous in its language, and thus its application could be overextended and interpreted to include what are and should remain lawful activities.”
The bishops said that, while it was “commendable” for the government to seek to prohibit coercive therapeutic practices, the Bill risked criminalizing “a range of activity and well-intended actions, hitherto legitimate and lawful, that are also beneficial goals in support of individuals”.
“The Bill makes no provision for legitimate diversity concerning viewpoints on human sexuality arising from religious beliefs, from philosophical debate, or from scientific and medical study; nor does it make any provision for conscientious dissent related to such matters in forums of teaching or public presentations.”
The Liberal Party requires support of other parties to enact the Bill because it has a minority in the House of Commons, but both the NDP and Bloc Quebecois have indicated that they would support a conversion therapy ban, with each able to provide the votes needed to reach a majority.
Erin O’Toole, the leader of the Conservative Party, has questioned the wording of the Bill but has said it will remain a conscience vote.
In Canada, the provinces of Ontario, Manitoba, Prince Edward Island, and Nova Scotia have already introduced local conversion therapy bans, as have a number of cities in the country.
Nine countries, including Germany and Brazil, have already introduced nationwide conversion therapy bans, with legislators in Ireland, France, Spain, Australia and New Zealand also putting forward proposals to outlaw such practices.
In July, Prime Minister Boris Johnson pledged to ban the “abhorrent” practice of “gay conversion therapy” in the UK and commissioned a study to assess how prevalent the practice is.
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