LEICESTER, United Kingdom – Scotland’s Catholic Church is urging the government to not ban “conversion practices” directed at LGBTQ+ individuals, saying such a measure could create “a chilling effect and may criminalize advice or opinion given in good faith.”

The UK government committed in its 2018 LGBT Action Plan to end the practice of conversion therapy and published a consultation in October 2021. A bill for the proposed legal change was included in the UK government’s legislative program for 2023-2024.

In Scotland – which has its own legal structure – an Expert Advisory Group on Ending Conversion Practices (EAG) was set up in March 2022, to advise the Scottish government on its approach to ending conversion practices.

The Scottish government has now launched a consultation on banning what it refers to as “conversion practices.” The 86-page proposal document was released alongside the online consultation, which closes on April 2.

The Catholic Church in Scotland has expressed serious concern about the nature and scope of any such legislation.

“While the Church supports legislation which protects people from physical and verbal abuse a fundamental pillar of any free society is that the state recognizes and respects the right of religious bodies and organizations to be free to teach the fulness of their beliefs and to support, through prayer, counsel and other pastoral means, their members who wish to live in accordance with those beliefs,” a Church representative said.

The Scottish government admitted here is no international, universal definition of the term “conversion practices.”

However, the Expert Advisory Group (EAG) defined conversion practices as “any treatment, practice or effort that aims to change, suppress and/or eliminate a person’s sexual orientation, gender identity and/or gender expression.”

A year ago, Scotland’s bishops said that if a ban on conversion therapy was passed by the Scottish Parliament, it would criminalize mainstream religious pastoral care, parental guidance, and medical or other professional intervention relating to sexual orientation, “unless it was approved by the State as acceptable.”

The bishops also feared it could criminalize the Church’s teaching about God’s creation of the human person as male and female and the meaning of sex as within marriage, and that “anyone who proposes this teaching to someone with same sex attraction or gender identity issues would face sanctions,” and that this would apply even if the person with these issues wanted help to follow Church teaching since this law would say they cannot consent to this teaching.

“Priests could be banned from working in Scotland, the Church could lose its charitable status, and classroom and pastoral teachers could lose their jobs. There would be uncertainty about the future of Catholic schools and children could be taken away from their parents. As the first educators of their children, parents alone have the right to advise and guide their children in such matters,” the bishops said in 2023.

Scotland’s Equalities Minister Emma Roddick said on Tuesday that conversion practices which aim to change or suppress a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity, “are damaging and destructive acts that violate people’s human rights.”

“Sadly, these practices still happen today, and they have absolutely no place in Scotland. In taking forward our commitment to ban conversion practices we are leading the way in the UK and joining the growing list of countries acting to address this harm,” she said.

“The consultation responses we receive will help us to further consider those measures we can take to stop the harm of conversion practices and protect those at risk while ensuring that freedoms – including freedoms of speech, religion, and belief – are safeguarded,” Roddick added.

Simon Calvert, deputy director of the UK charity the Christian Institute, said the group will be encouraging Christians to respond to the consultation and instructing a senior trial lawyer to look at the detail of the proposals.

“We are particularly worried about the Government’s plans for ‘civil protection orders.’ The courts could impose draconian limits on the free speech of individuals based purely on activists’ speculation about what they might say to gay or trans people,” Calvert said.

The Catholic Church representative on Tuesday also urged the Scottish government to not criminalize “mainstream religious pastoral care, parental guidance, and medical or other professional intervention relating to sexual orientation, which is not approved by the State as acceptable.”

“The worrying lack of clarity about what is meant by the term ‘conversion practices’ could create a chilling effect and may criminalize advice or opinion given in good faith,” the representative said.