Jacinda Ardern acknowledges gay conversion therapy is religious freedom for some

The Prime Minister is acknowledging that gay conversion therapy is religious freedom for some, in response to the Justice Select Committee's decision not to recommend a ban on the controversial practice. 

Jacinda Ardern told reporters at her post-Cabinet press conference on Monday that she "wouldn't mind taking the time to look at the select committee report".

Ardern said the practice is "something that I know our LGBTI community rightly so feels very strongly about, and it's an issue that I do have concerns about".

She said she's worried that "often you have very vulnerable, particularly young people, in that situation, and so I think the select committee is right to be concerned about those vulnerable young people".

But she said the committee would be "keeping in mind that there will be those who perceive that it's a part of their freedom of expression within their religion".

The committee published its response last week to two petitions from August and September of last year calling on the Government to ban the practice.

Gay conversion therapy is based on a belief that people with diverse sexual orientations or gender identities are abnormal and should be changed so they fit within hetero-normative standards.

Newshub reported last year that the practice is offered in New Zealand for $200 an hour, to help people unlearn homosexuality.

In New Zealand, it is considered unethical behaviour for registered counsellors to provide conversion therapy. But the committee noted that unregistered individuals or religious groups may offer it in accordance with their beliefs.

The practice is banned in several US and Australian states, Canadian provinces, Switzerland, Brazil, and Taiwan. 

The committee concluded that while there was agreement that conversion therapy is harmful, "more work needs to be done" before any decision is taken to ban it.

"In particular, thought must be given to how to define conversion therapy, who the ban would apply to, and how to ensure that rights relating to freedom of expression and religion were maintained."

The committee acknowledged that the view that conversion therapy is harmful and laws should protect against that, but MPs "grappled with the conflict inherent in this proposition".

"The desire to reduce harm by banning conversion therapy must be balanced against the desire to protect freedom of beliefs and religion for those offering the therapy," the MPs concluded, pointing to the Bill of Rights Act.

It allows all New Zealanders to live free from discrimination, including in relation to their sexual orientation; but and it also protects the right to freedom of religion.

Despite the committee's decision, Ardern said: "You'll hear from my language that my concerns sit predominantly around those young people."

The two petitions calling for a ban on gay conversion therapy each gathered thousands of signatures.

The petition of Amanda Ashley, presented on 8 August 2018, received 5157 signatures, while the petition of Max Tweedie for Young Labour and the Young Greens gathered more than 15,000.

The Conversion Therapy Action Group (CTAG) said last week it was disappointed in the committee's decision not to recommend a ban.

Tweedie, a member of CTAG, said: "I find the Committee's report even more disappointing because they acknowledge the widespread harm conversion therapy causes, but still fall short of recommending a ban."

Tweedie, also director of Auckland Pride, added: "Religious freedom exists so that people of faith aren't persecuted, it shouldn't guarantee the right for them to persecute others."

Labour MP Marja Lubek put forward a Member's Bill last year to ban the practice.