Kate Forbes: 'Right to practice' for those of faith must be defended in any conversion therapy ban

The rights of people of faith to practice their religion must be defended alongside the desire to avoid coercion in any ban of conversion therapy, Kate Forbes has said.

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The finance secretary and SNP leadership contender also said she was not convinced by the assisted dying bill, being brought through parliament by Scottish Liberal Democrat MSP, Liam McArthur.

Ms Forbes added she did not believe “anybody is neutral” and asked LGBT+ people to “afford the right to people of faith...to practice their beliefs” when asked what she would say to those concerned by her views on equality issues.

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Her comments, made in an interview with The Scotsman on Monday, come as the MSP faces a growing backlash for her comments on equal marriage where she said she would not have voted to make it legal when it passed in 2014, or if it was being passed today.

The Scottish Government’s expert advisory group on conversion therapy defines it as “all acts and practices that seek to change, suppress, or inhibit someone's sexual orientation, expression of sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.”

It agreed a ban on such practices would not lead to “an unlawful restriction of freedom of religion or freedom expression”, with the government committed to introducing a bill for a ban by the end of this year.

This would cover conversion therapy around both sexual orientation and transgender or non-binary identity.

Faith groups have pushed back against the planned ban from the Scottish Government, claiming it would be the “most totalitarian conversion therapy ban in the world” and would criminalise the “mainstream pastoral work of churches, mosques and synagogues and temples”, alongside parents.

Kate Forbes has lost support in the race to be the next SNP leader due to her views on social issues.Kate Forbes has lost support in the race to be the next SNP leader due to her views on social issues.
Kate Forbes has lost support in the race to be the next SNP leader due to her views on social issues.

However, conversion therapy has been shown to have a deep and long term negative impact on victims of the practice.

Asked for her view on the planned ban, Ms Forbes said she condemned the use of “coercion” around people’s sexuality or faith, and said she would “defend to the hilt” the right to “live and to love free of harassment”.

However, she said the “rights of other minorities” including those of faith, should be defended in any ban.

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The leadership contender said: “ As somebody of faith, the concept of coercion is absolutely abhorrent. I strongly condemn the use of any coercion when it comes to people's sexuality or when it comes to people's faith.

"I would argue that in a pluralistic and tolerant society I would certainly defend to the hilt everybody's right to live and to love free of harassment.

"The conversion therapy bill hasn't been introduced yet as far as I know. But equally we should defend the rights of other minorities like people of faith, as well, when it comes to their freedom of expression, their freedom of speech and their freedom of practice.

"I think there's a way for a bill to respect that whilst at the same time ensuring that coercion has no place in Scotland."

A spokesperson for the End Conversion Therapy Scotland campaign said it was clear there was “no threat to religious freedom” from a conversion therapy ban.

They said: “The idea that a conversion therapy ban poses a threat to religious freedom is simply not true, and it’s often used by proponents of conversion therapy to justify their support for this form of abuse.

"The United Nations, the Equalities Committee and the Scottish Government’s own Expert Advisory Group have all been clear: there is no threat to religious freedom. Any restrictions on religious expression would be proportionate and justified to protect LGBTQ+ people from the harm of conversion practices.”

Asked what she would say to those within the LGBT+ community who might be worried by her views and the potential direction of travel of the SNP and Scottish Government under her leadership, Ms Forbes said she believed Scotland was a “liberal country” and hoped the views of those with religious belief would be “respected”.

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She said: “I would hope that they would hear in my words my absolute commitment to defend everybody’s rights in a pluralistic and tolerant society. To live and to love free of harassment and fear.

"In the same way I would hope they might afford the right to people of faith – of which there are many in Scotland – to practice their beliefs, also without fear and harassment.

"I don’t believe anybody is neutral. I don’t believe people of faith or people of no faith are neutral. We all are products of our experiences, our backgrounds and yes our outlook on life.

"What I’ve done is be open and honest about that and also reflected the fact that I think Scotland is a liberal country. Tolerance cannot exist unless you have a country where different views and different approaches and different practices are respected.

"If we can’t have that I think that is a very sad day for Scotland.”

Ms Forbes was also asked whether she backed the member’s bill on legalising assisted dying brought to the Scottish Parliament by Liam McArthur, the Scottish Liberal Democrat MSP.

There have been two previous attempts to pass such a bill since devolution where it reached a vote, both led by independent MSP Margo McDonald, but both failed to be passed.

The finance secretary said she was unconvinced by the bill, highlighting what she said was a lack of “sufficient safeguards”.

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She said: “I am [unconvinced]. It is one I have followed with significant interest, in fact I followed the previous bills with quite considerable interest.

"My position on the bill is that I have never seen a bill or indeed a law, whether that is in the Netherlands or Oregon, which has sufficient safeguards in it.

"Now, Liam [McArthur] may prove me wrong, but I have never seen a bill with sufficient safeguards that somebody would not feel pressure to take that route or couldn’t be exploited.”

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