Boris Johnson has been accused of creating a “loophole” in the government’s proposed ban on conversion therapy after he suggested it will not cover prayer in religious settings for the “exploration” of a person’s sexual identity.
In a letter to the Evangelical Alliance — a group representing 3,500 churches across Britain — the prime minister reiterated his pledge to “end the scourge” of the practice that seeks to suppress or change a sexual or gender identity.
After intense pressure from campaigners and almost three years after Theresa May first committed to banning conversion therapy in Britain, the government has repeatedly said it will bring forward proposals “shortly” on the controversial issue.
However, in his correspondence with Peter Lynas, the UK director of the Evangelical Alliance, Mr Johnson said he wanted to reassure the religious community that the government takes “freedoms of speech and freedoms of religion very seriously”.
“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,” he added.
“Like you, I do not want to see clergy and church members criminalised for normal non-coercive activity”.
In response to the letter, the Labour MP Angela Eagle posted on social media: “This proposed ‘loophole’ is so large, there would effectively be no ban on conversion therapy”.
The LGBT+ charity Stonewall, who have long campaigned against the “cruel practice”, added: “Conversion therapies are a form of abuse that lead to long-term physical and/or mental harm for victims.
“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”.
Jayne Ozanne, who quit last month from the government’s LGBT+ advisory panel, said: “As a Christian, I take the freedom of religion very seriously — up until the point that it causes harm.
“We know that spiritual abuse occurs in various religious settings, which is why there are precedents of the government intervening to protect people from harm. In this context, prayer that allows truly 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 confirms to a ‘norm’ causes untold damage, is degrading and leads many to contemplate taking their lives. It must be banned, and all the perpetrators must feel the full force of the law”.
A spokesperson for the government equalities office told The Independent: “This government is fully committed to advancing LGBT rights and championing equality, having legalised same-sex marriage and introduced one of the world’s most comprehensive legislative frameworks for protecting LGBT people from discrimination.
“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”.
It comes after the government announced it had disbanded the LGBT+ panel of independent advisers set up under Ms May’s administration, suggesting plans for a replacement body would be set out in “due course”.
Last month three members of the 12-strong panel quit in protest at the government’s delay introducing a ban on conversion therapy in Britain — over 1,000 days after it was first promised by the Conservatives.
According to the BBC members on the panel, whose two-year term came to an end in March, said they were willing to continue carrying out their duties.
However, Liz Truss, the women and equalities minister, thanked them for their “contributions” while the government equalities office said “plans for a replacement panel will be set out in due course”.
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