Boris Johnson has confirmed churches in Britain will still be allowed to pray for gay people who are questioning their sexuality - despite plans to ban conversion therapy.
The Prime Minister said all adults can still get “appropriate pastoral support including prayer” in religious settings in the “exploration of their sexual orientation”.
He responded after church leaders raised fears that Christians could be prosecuted if they were banned from praying for people who no longer wish to be gay.
The PM told the Evangelical Alliance that he takes 'freedom of speech and freedom of religion very seriously' while the Government plans to ban conversion therapy.
And he will therefore not back calls from some LGB+ campaigners who wanted a ban on any practice aiming to change someone's sexual identity, including prayer.
The Government first announced it would ban conversion therapy in 2018, with Mr Johnson re-confirming this last July and calling the practice “absolutely abhorrent”.
Then in December 2020 more than 370 religious leaders from around the world including Archbishop Desmond Tutu joined forces in a declaration backing the ban.
But last month the EA protested to Mr Johnson that a ban on conversion therapy would prevent church ministers from preaching the virtues of chastity.
It said a new law to end the practice of trying to convert gay and lesbian people to heterosexuality would endanger freedom of speech and religion but do nothing to prevent abusive practices.
That intervention followed the resignation of three Government advisers in a coup aimed at pushing Ministers into introducing legislation.
In response Equalities Minister Liz Truss called conversion treatment 'abhorrent' and promised to bring forward a new law.
The warning against introducing a legal ban was sent to the PM by Peter Lynas, UK director of the EA, which represents protestant factions of the Church of England and many evangelical churches.
As ‘Daily Mail’ reports, Mr Lynas said by some definitions a ban would make it a crime to talk to someone aiming “to change their sexual orientation or behaviour so as to conform with a heteronormative lifestyle or their gender identity.”
He said: “Proposals as currently discussed could have the consequence of restricting individual freedom and impinging on essential religious liberty - potentially criminalising Christians and common church activities.
“Proposals to end conversion therapy must not prevent people from seeking and receiving support to live chaste lives.
“Language that suggests a ban would cove 'suppressing' or 'repressing' sexuality would be a substantive block on supporting those that do not wish to act on their sexual attraction.
“Ironically, those calling for a ban are promoting polices that would discriminate against someone based on their sexuality - preventing someone who is gay from accessing counselling available to a straight person.”
He added: “An expansive definition of conversion therapy, and a ban along such lines, would place church leaders at risk of prosecution when they preach on biblical texts relating to marriage and sexuality.
"We recognise the role the church has sadly played historically in perpetuating stigma, discrimination and harm towards people because of their sexuality.
“We oppose abusive practices and the use of electro-shock treatment and corrective rape are clearly wrong and should be ended.
“However, such practices should already be banned or illegal and as such should be dealt with under existing policies and laws.”
Now, Premier Christian Radio has reported that Mr Johnson has replied to the EA and confirmed any new legislation will not cover prayer or pastoral support.
In his letter, the PM said: “I want to reassure you that I take freedom of speech and freedom 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.
“Like you, I do not want to see clergy and church members criminalised for normal non-coercive activity.”
The Government has not yet revealed how it plans to ban conversion therapy and the exact scope of any new law, although a Bill is expected to go through Parliament later this year.
Last month Church of England Bishop of Liverpool the Right Reverend Paul Bayes said: “LGBTI+ orientation/identity is not a sickness, not a crime and not a sin.
“Conversion therapy damages people. So I hope that the Government will stay faithful to its commitment to a ban.”
Earlier this month Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer apologised after visiting a church in Brent, North London, which had been widely criticised for its views on homosexuality.
Sir Keir posted a video from Jesus House For All The Nations, which he praised as a “wonderful example of a church serving their community” during the pandemic.
The church, which is a vaccination centre, is led by pastor Agu Irukwu who has previously written about his opposition to equality legislation and gay marriage.
The Labour Campaign for LGBT+ Rights called Sir Keir's visit and subsequent post praising the church “unacceptable”.
Sir Keir then said: “I completely disagree with Jesus House's beliefs on LGBT+ rights, which I was not aware of before my visit. I apologise for the hurt my visit caused and have taken down the video. It was a mistake and I accept that.”
However, following Sir Keir's apology, Mr Iruku told Premier Christianity: “We do not engage in any form of conversion therapy.
“We, as a church, provide appropriate pastoral support, including prayer, to all our members, whatever life situations or circumstances they find themselves in.”
Former Prime Minister Theresa May was criticised in 2017 for visiting the church, but Boris Johnson and the Prince of Wales have both been to the pop-up vaccination centre there in recent weeks without attracting widespread comment.
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