A Northern Tasmanian church says they make "no apologies" for practicing sexual orientation and gender identity conversion therapy and will continue the practice regardless of potential law reform.
The Tasmanian Law Reform Institute is finalising its report into conversion therapy practices amid calls from Tasmanian LGBTQIA+ advocates to have the legislation changed.
The TLRI's issue paper defines sexual orientation and gender identity - also known as SOGI - conversion practices as: "acts or statements that are aimed at changing, suppressing, or eradicating the sexual orientation or gender identity of another person and are based on a claim, assertion or notion, either express or implied, that non-conforming sexual orientation or gender identity is a physical or psychological dysfunction that can be suppressed or changed".
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A public submission to the TLRI revealed the Free Reformed Church in South Launceston is still actively involved in conversion therapy practices and believes any legislative reform will infringe on their religious freedoms.
In a submission on behalf of the Free Reformed Church, Reverend Wes Bredenhof said people should not be prevented from seeking Christian, bible-based help with their sexual or gender identity. "My calling is to show love to everyone I can by first explaining the serious trouble all of us are in," Dr Bredenhof said.
"I am like a medical doctor who explains the disease so the patient can understand the need for treatment and be persuaded to take it."
Conversion therapy 'is not in the past'
LGBTQIA+ advocate and Equality Tasmania spokesman Rodney Croome AM said until recently, many Tasmanians believed conversion therapy was a thing of the past.
"Many people will be surprised conversion practices are still being inflicted on young LGBTIQIA+ Tasmanians, but as I've become familiar with the stories of Tasmanian survivors I've learnt just how prevalent conversion practices continue to be," Mr Croome said.
"The Free Reformed Church's admission that it conducts conversion practices explodes the myth that these practices don't happen any longer, or happen elsewhere, and adds weight to our call for legislation to stop these practices."
A recent study by LaTrobe University found one in 20 LGBTQIA+ youth in Australia have undergone conversion therapy.
The national study surveyed 6418 LGBTQIA+ young people aged between 14 and 21 and found 265 individuals had undergone conversion practices. It found that LGBTQIA+ youth who underwent conversion therapy were at a higher risk of psychological distress and mental health conditions, self-harm and suicide than other LGBTQIA+ youth.
Additionally, youth who had attended conversion practices were found to be three and a half times more likely to have been diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder.
In his submission to the TLRI, Dr Bredenhof said the definition of SOGI conversion practices should be limited to extreme acts such as electroshock or aversion therapy and not extend to what his church practices.
"There are many examples of individuals who identified as gay or lesbian, but, when they became Christians, they found a different identity which gave them joy and peace," he said.
"It happened just because someone talked through the Bible with them and prayed with them - and the Holy Spirit worked through that to change their lives."
However, Mr Croome said survivors of SOGI conversion therapy practices had spoken out about the mental and emotional impact of these faith-based conversion therapies.
"The psychological damage inflicted on young people who are told they are broken and are taught to hate themselves can be deeper and more long-lasting than a momentary electric shock," Mr Croome said.
"The research by La Trobe University shows that young LGBTQIA+ people who experience conversion practices are more likely to have PTSD and attempt suicide.
An electric shock lasts a second, suicide is forever.Rodney Croome AM
Dr Bredenhof said he and his church community held fears that changes to legislation may result in far-reaching consequences for schools and children.
"I would urge the Tasmanian Law Reform Institute to give careful consideration to the consequences of any proposed SOGI conversion legislation - will this require the government to remove children from the homes of Christian parents who hold to what the Bible teaches about SOGI?" the submission reads.
"Will this result in a new 'stolen generation?'"
Conversion therapies practices have already been banned in Queensland, Victoria and the Australian Capital Territory - most within the past 18 months.
The ACT enacted specific legislation on SOGI conversion practices and included a note regarding religious freedoms.
"A person has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, including the freedom to demonstrate their religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching, either individually or as part of a community and whether in public or private," the legislation states.
"It is not intended that a mere expression of a religious tenet or belief would constitute a sexuality or gender identity conversion practice."
Mr Croome said the proposed changes to Tasmania's legislation were not intended to stop religious freedom and would not target places of faith.
"Legislation will not target churches or schools, and will not stop people of faith expressing their views on sexuality and gender," he said.
"It will prohibit the sustained targeting of particular individuals with the kind of pseudo-science that says their sexual orientation or gender identity can be changed.
"Religious freedom is vitally important to a free and democratic society, but it doesn't justify inflicting deep harm on vulnerable people through conversion practices.
"I want to assure Tasmanian faith communities that conversion practices legislation isn't about attacking them, it's about ending the damaging practices that are too-often done in religion's name."
The TLRI's final report on conversion therapy is expected by the end of the year. Submissions closed on January 28, however the inquiry received a "higher than expected" level of public interest, resulting in a very high number of submissions and impacting the timeline for its release.
In a statement, the TLRI said it was now processing "the large volume of submissions and additional evidence and consulting with peak health, medical and statutory bodies on options for law reform".
In his submission, Dr Bredenhof said that he and other Christian churches would not be changing their views on conversion therapies.
"I also respectfully provide our submission to alert you to the fact that Christian churches like ours will not change our practices," he said.
Mr Croome said he accepted that peoples' beliefs may not change, but reform was still necessary.
"It will send the message to those church communities that may have turned a blind eye to conversion practices in the past, that it's time to save lives by repudiating these practices."
The Free Reformed Church was contacted for comment.
Equality Tasmania has launched a support group for survivors of conversion therapy, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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