A bill seeking to ban so-called conversion therapy for sexual orientation or gender identity in the Australian state of Victoria dangerously oversteps the bounds of protecting people from coercive practices, the Archbishop of Melbourne said.

“I encourage every action to protect people from harm. A bill that protected people would have my full support,” Archbishop Peter Comensoli said in a statement.

“The problem is this bill doesn’t merely do what it claims. It targets prayer, and appears to impose silence on people of faith from sharing their beliefs in an open, honest and faithful way. The bill imposes on the right of parents and children to speak plainly and honestly with one another. It robs adults from seeking whatever guidance and pastoral support they seek concerning deeply personal matters,” he said.

Comensoli has been a strong opponent of Victoria’s Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Bill 2020, which was introduced in late November. The bill would outlaw practices that encourage individuals to change or suppress their sexual orientation or gender identity and thereby cause undue harm. It would also outlaw sending someone out of state to partake in such practices. Those in violation of the law would face $10,000 in fines or 10 years in prison.

The bill would empower the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission to launch investigations into reports of people or institutions engaging in conversion practices.

“We’re sending a clear message: no one is ‘broken’ because of their sexuality or gender identity,” Victoria’s attorney general, Jill Hennessy, of the Labor Party, told The Guardian. “These views won’t be tolerated in Victoria and neither will these abhorrent practices.”

The bill defines such practices as those “directed towards a person that is based on the person's sexual orientation or gender identity which seeks to change or suppress or induce the person to change or suppress their sexual orientation or gender identity. It includes a practice that occurs with or without the person's consent.”

Catholic opponents of the bill fear that its broad language will allow government officials to go beyond protecting people from harmful practices and will be used to silence free speech in families and the free choices of individuals who want to follow the teachings of their religion.

This could impact Catholic ministries like Courage, which exists to support Catholics with same-sex attraction who desire to live chaste and celibate lives in accordance with the teachings of the Church. Courage does not aim to change participant’s sexual orientation, but rather encourages them to live in accordance with Church teaching.

“Courage members are men and women who experience same-sex attractions and who have made a commitment to strive for chastity. They are inspired by the Gospel call to holiness and the Catholic Church’s beautiful teachings about the goodness and inherent purpose of human sexuality,” the ministry’s website states. “Through our apostolate, people who experience same-sex attraction receive pastoral support in the form of spiritual guidance, community prayer support, and fellowship.”

The bill states that possible conversion or suppression practices could include “religious practices such as prayer based practice, a deliverance practice or exorcisms.”

Comensoli said the government has no business regulating the free choice of how individuals practice their religion.  “No government has an interest in what a person prays for, who they pray to, who they pray with, or what conversations happen between members of a family,” he said in his statement.

“It is not clear that parents in Victoria have been told clearly that this bill affects what they can say and how they say it with their own children,” the archbishop added.

“This looks like a dramatic over-reach of the state into family life, private matters, pastoral contexts of conversion, prayer and spiritual accompaniment,” he said.

Bishop Shane Mackinlay of Sandhurst said he supported the intent of the government to protect vulnerable individuals from coercion or harm, but that he shared the Church’s concern for freedom of speech and the freedom of religion.

"I support the intent of preventing coercive and intrusive attempts to interfere with people's free choice about themselves, their identity, their place in life, their place in society and their relationships," Mackinlay told the Bellingen Shire Courier-Sun, an Australian news publication.

But he said that “assurances” should be included in the bill that it will not be used to silence religious teachings.

John Steenhoff, managing director of the Human Rights Law Alliance, told The Catholic Weekly in Australia that the bill is “a direct attack on religious beliefs, in particular Christianity, and will target those who hold to traditional convictions on sexual orientation and gender identity issues.”

“It is far too broad and will legislate extreme ideology, particularly around gender ideology,” Steenhoff said. “On first review, the bill is the worst of the recent State legislative efforts that deal with so-called conversion therapy bans and will be dangerous for religious freedom.”

“The bill imposes draconian limits and criminal sanctions on what Australians can think and speak about contentious issues of sexuality and gender,” he added.

Amid mounting pressure to affirm medically the gender identities of transgendered persons, the Australian Catholic Medical Association this past spring defended its Christian approaches to sex, gender, and the human person.

In an online conference in May, the association focused on proposals in several Australian states that have considered mandating the medical affirmation of transgender identity and sexual orientation which could in effect outlaw the Christian vision of human health and psychology in medical care, the association told CNA at the time.

The Victoria conversion therapy bill’s proposal also comes roughly one year after Victoria passed a law that would require priests to violate the seal of confession if anything in the confession gave them reason to suspect occurrences of child abuse. That law carries a sentence of up to three years in prison if a mandatory reporter does not report abuse to the authorities.

A priest is forbidden by both divine and canon law both from violating the seal of confession, as well as from making absolution conditional on future actions in the external forum.