For Christians in Canada, affirming a biblical sexual ethic just grew more difficult. The Canadian Senate passed Bill C-4 unanimously on December 7. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wrote of the senate’s decision: “Our government’s legislation to ban conversion therapy in Canada is one step closer to becoming law. To everyone who has made this possible, thank you. Let’s keep building a country where everyone is free to be who they are and love who they love.” Bill C-4 received royal assent on December 8, making it law in Canada.

This legislation has been an ongoing concern for Canadian Christians. About one year ago, the Executive Board of The Gospel Coalition Canada submitted a brief to the Senate, asking it to clarify specific claims it made for the sake of Christian ministry in Canada.

Council Member Jonathan Griffiths organized the Canadian Religious Freedom Summit on January 30, which The Gospel Coalition Canada cosponsored. The summit called on Canada’s Parliament to “amend this bill to make it clear that the label ‘conversion therapy’ applies only to coercive, involuntary, and discredited therapeutic practices, and not to religious instruction, pastoral care, or conversations within families.”

Such calls went largely unheeded. Less than a year later, Bill C-4 passed. No amendments or clarification answered this call or similar calls.

Why Are We Concerned?

What does Bill C-4 criminalize? Why have some Canadians objected to (or applauded) the language of the bill? And why are Christians worried about aspects of the bill’s language?

1. Bill C-4 criminalizes (coercive) conversion therapy

Conversion therapy refers to converting a LGBTQ person into a cisgender person. The bill says conversion therapy “means a practice, treatment or service designed to”:

  • change a person’s sexual orientation to heterosexual;
  • change a person’s gender identity to cisgender;
  • change a person’s gender expression so that it conforms to the sex assigned to the person at birth;
  • repress or reduce non-heterosexual attraction or sexual behaviour;
  • repress a person’s non-cisgender gender identity; or
  • repress or reduce a person’s gender expression that does not conform to the sex assigned to the person at birth.

Bill C-4 later specifies that “Everyone who knowingly causes another person to undergo conversion therapy” could be criminally liable.

2. What about non-coercive conversion?

Words like “cause” or “conversion” imply coercion. Section A of the bill’s summary says that it bans “causing another person to undergo conversion therapy.” The language of “causing” implies coercion.

Even so, the wording is perhaps intentionally vague. When The Gospel Coalition Canada submitted a brief to the Canadian senate in 2020, we asked the committee

to please clarify in Bill C-6 what is meant by “conversion therapy.” Further, we ask the Committee to please clarify specifically what is meant by the terms “practice, treatments and service.” These terms ought to be understood in a strictly medical sense and should not be interpreted in a ministerial or pastoral sense.

No clarification came. As stated, Bill C-4 certainly bans coercive practices. That was its original intent. But does its current language allow for the banning of non-coercive practices?

To give one example, imagine a churchgoer telling his pastor that he wants to change his sex. What happens if his pastor brings up Genesis 1 and 2? In his conversation with the man, the pastor may recount that God created men and women in his image and that God created marriage for men and women (Gen 1:27; 2:24; Matt 19:4–5).

Imagine a churchgoer telling his pastor that he wants to change his sex. What happens if his pastor brings up Genesis?

Would such a claim, with its moral presumption and direction, count as conversion therapy? The implication of the pastor’s statement would be to name what Scripture says and to call people to such a practice.

Lawyers will have to work out the application of the law, and one hopes that cool heads prevail.

3. Bill C-4 criminalizes promoting or advertising conversion therapy

When Bill C-4 defines advertisement, it speaks of “the representation, written material or recording, copies of which are kept in premises within the jurisdiction of the court.”

Bill C-4 also clarifies that “advertisement for conversion therapy means any material—including a photographic, film, video, audio or other recording, made by any means, a visual representation or any written material—that is used to promote or advertise conversion therapy contrary to section 320.‍103)” (emphasis added).

Given this definition of advertisement and—what appears to be a near synonym—promotion of conversion therapy, religious persons (Muslims, Christians, etc.) should rightly wonder if promoting aspects of their holy texts and traditions would run afoul of this ban.

4. Bill C-4 criminalizes materially benefiting from conversion therapy

Christian counselors who charge fees may wonder if this law applies to them. After all, they may speak about scriptural texts like Genesis 1 and 2 that define the creation of humans and God’s intent for marriage. While Christians do not convert someone from one gender expression to another, they do call for a whole-life repentance that turns from idols to God (1 Thess. 1:9).

Concluding Thoughts

Lawyers will need to work out the legal application of Bill C-4. Bill C-4 might be understood to criminalize activity that Muslims, Christians, Jewish persons, and other religious groups believe to be at the center of human flourishing.

I note—I hope not too cynically—that Bill C-4 explicitly bans changing one’s expression to “cisgender” or “hereterosexual” or “to the sex assigned to the person at birth” but not the opposite. The language allows for conversion from heterosexual expression to an LGBTQ expression. I have no doubt that LGBTQ persons will continue to advertise and promote their gender expressions.

The teeth of the bill apply largely to those who attempt to convert someone “to the sex assigned to the person at birth.” The bill does so because it sees harm in conversion therapy from LGBTQ to heterosexual gender expression, not the other way around.

For this reason, Bill C-4 speaks of repressing someone else’s orientation or expression as a criminal activity. One may not ask someone to “repress or reduce non-heterosexual attraction or sexual behaviour” or “repress a person’s non-cisgender gender identity” or “repress or reduce a person’s gender expression that does not conform to the sex assigned to the person at birth.”

Lawyers may show Bill C-4 only applies to its intended target—coercive techniques. But Bill C-4 may at the municipal level be used as justification to target good-faith groups and people that are not being coercive.

The Spirit renews our hearts. For this reason, someone will desire to turn from idols to the living God (1 Thess. 1:9). We neither coerce nor regenerate, but “we persuade others” (2 Cor. 5:11) and wait for God to do his regenerating and transforming work through his Spirit.

We neither coerce nor regenerate, but ‘we persuade others’ and wait for God to do his regenerating and transforming work through his Spirit.

We do so under the double command of love—of God and of neighbor (Matt. 22:37–40). God created humans in his image to flourish by being fruitful and multiplying across the world (Gen 1:26–28).

We proclaim the dead and risen Lord, Jesus Christ. As Lord, he sends his Spirit (Acts 2:32–36). The Spirit then breaks down our hearts of stone.

Even so, local, provincial, and national authorities may decide to apply this law to faithful Christians in Canada. If this should happen, Christians must remain faithful to the truth of God—even if it costs us much.