How a proposed conversion therapy ban and LGBTQ2 issues are mobilizing Canada’s Christian right
Last September, a group of Evangelical leaders from across British Columbia gathered to unveil a statement on sexuality and gender identity after 21 days of fasting and prayer.
“We believe this to be a historic moment both here in B.C. and the nation of Canada,” says Kevin Cavanaugh, lead pastor of the Cedar Grove Church in Surrey, in a video of the event. Supporters in attendance included Laura-Lynn Tyler Thompson, current People’s Party of Canada candidate for Red Deer, Alta., who has been outspoken against sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) education in schools.
“We are hereby revealing, for the first time, the West Coast Christian Accord, which in 14 articles provides a Biblical statement on the supremacy of Christ, the authority of scripture, salvation, marriage, sexual orientation and gender identity,” Cavanaugh says.
That statement, referred to by the group as the “Accord,” includes clauses that describe marriage as “a covenantal, sexual, procreative, lifelong union of one man and one woman” and that “it is contrary to Scripture to approve of homosexual immorality or transgenderism.” It mirrors similar statements from American groups.
“We affirm that those born with Disorders of Sex Development (DSD) are created in the image of God and have dignity and worth equal to all other image-bearers,” article 9 of the document states. “They are acknowledged by our Lord Jesus Christ in his words about ‘eunuchs who were born that way from their mother’s womb.’ … [They] should embrace their biological sex insofar as it may be known.”
That document forms the basis of the burgeoning “One Accord” movement, which seeks to encourage Christians across Canada to vote in the upcoming election for candidates who they think will protect their beliefs.
Amid ongoing debates over bans on conversion therapy and abortion rights in Canada, the leaders of the One Accord movement have begun mobilizing Christian congregations ahead of the election to push back against such a ban, and other policies that they see as eroding their religious freedoms.
For instance, one pastor and leader of the movement told Global News that attempts to criminalize conversion therapy could infringe on his ability to freely counsel those who come to him with struggles regarding their sexuality and gender identity.
But LGBTQ2+ advocates and religious scholars say that the movement points to troubling trends within Canada’s Christian right, and that the group’s statements promote hatred and intolerance. They also say it’s an example of how the current political climate in the U.S. under the Trump administration, buoyed by white Christians, has emboldened the Christian right in Canada ahead of the election this fall.
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Over the last 10 months, the movement has drawn support in the form of thousands of signatures on the document from pastors and members of Christian congregations across Canada — a movement spokesperson said there are more than 6,000 signatories. Individuals from different denominations, such as Baptists, Catholics, Lutherans, and Mennonites, have signed on. Many describe themselves as youth leaders and Sunday school teachers, according to the group’s list of signatories.
The purpose of the accord, according to the group’s website, is to “establish a coalition of Pastors and leaders who stand and act together on these convictions.”
André Gagné, a theology professor at Concordia University in Montreal who researches the Christian right, said the “One Accord” movement points to a highly organized and cohesive movement that should be taken seriously.
“In the past, it was more quiet. The Christian right was working more behind the scenes, underground. But now, they are very outward and open about what they want to do. They are influenced by what’s happening in the U.S.,” Gagné told Global News after reviewing the group’s website and videos. “This is very much the trend that we’re seeing now amongst Christian right groups. We’ve seen it in Brazil with the election of Bolsonaro. We’ve seen it with Trump. It’s essentially a wave. And it might [happen] here in Canada.”
Gagné said that these church leaders have the ability to tap into networks of churches to get their messages across. “They can instruct, and make sure, that congregants are aware of the candidates that represent their values,” he said. “The Christian right is really a political coalition of individuals that share common concerns. Amongst those concerns are, of course, their problems with LGBTQ rights.”
Within a section of the One Accord website entitled “Federal Election,” Pastor Cavanaugh is shown discussing what he and the movement feels is at stake in the election.
“Friends, our religious rights and freedoms here in Canada are inching dangerously closer to extinction,” Cavanaugh says in a video uploaded to the One Accord site in May. “We trust you’ll agree that it is high time for the church in Canada to rise up, take its place and get fully engaged in the election process.”
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Kristopher Wells, a Canada research chair for the Public Understanding of Sexual and Gender Minority Youth at MacEwan University in Edmonton, is deeply troubled by the Accord and the rhetoric of the movement’s leaders. Wells has been an outspoken opponent of conversion therapy, or any attempts to suppress or discourage one’s sexuality or gender identity.
“They’re spewing hatred that’s targeted at a vulnerable minority in Canadian society, and it needs to stop,” Wells told Global News. “It’s very clear that they have a political strategy to attempt to mobilize their values and beliefs to undermine the basic tenets of Canadian democracy and represent a significant attack on human rights and minorities in this country.”
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Yet Rev. Giulio Lorefice Gabeli, another church leader and spokesperson for the One Accord movement, told Global News in a phone interview that the One Accord movement and its statements are neither hateful nor discriminatory.
“We feel that as faith community leaders and we feel as Canadian Christians, or Canadian people that pursue the Judeo-Christian values, that there is a targeted strategy to silence our voice,” said Gabeli, who is the lead pastor at the Westwood Community Church in Coquitlam, B.C.
“The purpose of the Accord is not to be confrontational in nature, whether it’s to the LGBTQ community or those that are pursuing transgenderism and so on, or those that embrace the transgender ideology. We’re not wanting to confront them. We’re wanting to just simply clarify what we believe,” Gabeli said.
“So the moment that we share our views, that we say, ‘Well, we don’t agree with this kind of lifestyle,’ we are then labelled as racist or labelled as homophobic or labelled as inciters of hate speech. Whatever happened to freedom of speech? I mean, we’re not condemning anyone that chooses to live that way. But we want to be free as well to declare this is what we believe as Canadians.”
In a video on the One Accord site, Pastor Cavanaugh describes the movement’s priorities for the federal election — the first being freedom of religion. In it, he discusses government plans to ban conversion therapy, the practice that seeks to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. The practice has been discredited by many health organizations, including the Canadian Psychological Association, which states that it can induce serious harms including anxiety and depression.
A number of provinces and municipalities have already restricted conversion therapy, or are exploring doing so. In 2015, Ontario passed legislation that bans conversion therapy for minors, and prohibits public funds from being used for conversion therapy for adults. It does not, however, prevent adults from seeking conversion therapy voluntarily. It also doesn’t cover informal religious counselling that may dissuade people from embracing being LGBTQ2.
“As I speak right now, a federal bill is in the first reading, which, if passed, would make conversion therapy a criminal offence,” Cavanaugh says, referring to proposed legislation tabled earlier this year in the Senate by Liberal Sen. Serge Joyal. The proposed legislation, Bill S-260, defines conversion therapy as “any practice, treatment or service designed to change an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity or to eliminate or reduce sexual attraction or sexual behaviour between persons of the same sex.”
The bill, if passed, would amend the federal Criminal Code to criminalize those who advertise or receive a financial benefit from providing conversion therapy to minors.
It’s something that Cavanaugh takes issue with.
“Counsellors, therapists, and individuals who receive remuneration for helping people who are seeking to get out of an LGBTQ lifestyle could be sentenced up to five years in prison,” says Cavanaugh in the video.
“Local pastors out in B.C. have been intimidated and threatened with investigations for hate crimes simply for hosting events, activities, or organizations that oppose the ideologies of the LGBTQ.”
He does not go into detail about those incidents.
Speaking with Global News, Rev. Gabeli said that he has had a number of individuals approach him for help with what he described as struggles with homosexuality. A conversion therapy ban, he added, could infringe on his right to offer them counselling, and their right to seek it.
Rev. Gabeli said he has met with individuals who said they have struggled “with homosexuality and lesbianism and so on.”
“Our approach has never been one of condemnation,” he said. “Obviously, as a pastor, as a faith community leader, I believe that I can help that person not only through counselling, but also to help them, to encourage them, to pray with them.
“Now, if that’s considered conversion therapy, and that is considered a violation, [then] that is an infringement upon my right as a faith community leader to actually speak what I believe, and to reach out to help my community, people that are coming to me for help.”
Gabeli likened this scenario to a case in which someone with a drug addiction comes forward to seek help.
“This conversion therapy ban, it needs to be modified to not just painting everyone with the same brush. I think there needs to be more of a definition and clarity as to what they would forbid or what they would see as being a violation,” Gabeli said. “If something is being forced on someone, obviously that might be questionable. … In my community, it is within my right to help them. Just like I would reach out to a drug addict, just like I’d reach out to anyone that is struggling in any other area of behaviour that is not correct or that they want to change.”
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And it’s part of the reason why Gabeli and his movement are gearing up to effect change in the next election.
“We are just challenging the faith community across Canada to be aware of some of the challenges that are arising, even at this present time, and why it is so important for them to be involved in their own ridings, to know who the candidates are, to know exactly what they stand for, what they believe,” he said. “We always encourage people to focus on the candidate, not necessarily the party.”
Kristopher Wells, the MacEwan University professor, said that any group that offers or supports conversion therapy should be stripped of its charitable status.
“Conversion therapy is simply one common expression of this anti-LGBTQ ideology that is imbued in some faith perspectives,” he said. “It ranges all the way from absolute refusal to accept same-sex marriage to the belief that being LGBTQ is a disorder or a sinful behaviour or that LGBTQ people are broken and need to be fixed or paired with spiritual intervention or prayer.”
He added that the One Accord movement, and its rhetoric, should prompt other religious and community leaders to speak out.
“This is a call for other faith communities to rise up and show their inclusive values,” Wells said. One Accord’s views, he added, do not represent the beliefs of a majority of the religions and faiths in Canada.
“Silence only allows those kinds of behaviours to gain a foothold and flourish. We have to call them out and we have to ensure that they’re not going to continue to increase support and intensity.”
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