Can they really make prayer illegal?
The U.K. considers a nationwide ban on silent prayers near abortion facilities
Just before Christmas, a pro-life volunteer and leader of the U.K.’s March for Life was arrested and charged with four counts of praying silently on a public street near a closed abortion facility in the U.K. At least five areas in the U.K. have implemented measures that prevent any person from approving or disapproving of abortion—including through silent prayer—within a censorship zone, and Parliament may soon consider a national ban on expressing opinions near an abortion facility. These measures are a violation of the most basic rights to freedom of speech and thought.
Isabel Vaughan-Spruce has volunteered for many years in support of women in crisis pregnancies. She explains that as part of her faith she often prays near abortion clinics:
“My faith is a central part of who I am, so sometimes I’ll stand or walk near an abortion facility and pray about this issue. This is something I’ve done pretty much every week for around the last 20 years of my life. I pray for my friends who have experienced abortion, and for the women who are thinking about going through it themselves.”
In Birmingham, local authorities label her actions a crime. In early December, Isabel was arrested for violating the prohibition on prayer. After an onlooker reported her, she was arrested and taken to a police station, where she was interrogated, facing questions about the thoughts and prayers that had been going through her mind.
As part of her conditions of making bail, police initially imposed restrictions on her praying even outside the censorship zone and told her she was not to contact a local Catholic priest who was involved in pro-life work.
Isabel’s arrest for praying silently is not a one-off event. At least five localities have measures that prevent any person from engaging in any act of approval or disapproval in relation to abortion—including through prayer. In Bournemouth, the local authority employs “Community Safety Accredited Officers” to patrol the area to detect activities like prayer. Such officials recently warned a woman that she was praying too close to an abortion facility even though she was outside the censorship zone. And in 2021, a grandmother from Liverpool was arrested and fined for praying while she was walking near an abortion facility.
Worse still, in Westminster, parliamentarians are debating a proposal that would extend this ban throughout the country. Clause 9 of the Public Order Bill would prohibit anyone from expressing opinions within 150 meters of an abortion facility. It is punishable by up to two years in prison.
Many parliamentarians have criticized the measure. Liberal Democrat Peer Lord Beith deemed the clause “the most profound restriction on free speech I have ever seen in any U.K. legislation.” Lord Farmer called the clause “fundamentally flawed,” and asked why small vigils held by mainly female pensioners should “be banned and silenced.” Baroness Claire Fox, an abortion advocate, raised concerns that Clause 9 criminalizes “thoughtcrimes” and argued that the precedent of censorship zones “will inevitably lead to attempts to prevent speech, expression, information sharing, assembly or the holding of protected beliefs around other sites or in relation to other controversial or unpopular causes.” Even the parliamentary under-secretary admitted that Clause 9 could violate the right to freedom of expression under the European Convention on Human Rights.
Britain has no written constitution and is a parliamentary democracy. Thus, while the country has long recognized the importance of free speech and has what amounts to statutory protections for speech—incorporated into national law by the Human Rights Act of 1998—the country has no formal constitutional protection. While a censored British citizen who fails to find recourse before domestic courts could appeal to the European Court of Human Rights, that tribunal has no power to strike down national legislation and has its own troubling record when it comes to protecting free speech.
Ultimately this means it is up to Parliament to protect speech and leaves open the possibility that, in the words of one observer, it “could succumb to political pressure and stifle debate.” As Jeremiah Igunnubole, Legal Counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom UK, the legal organization supporting Isabel, explained, it is astonishing that British law allows local authorities to deem thoughts “wrong” and therefore result in arrest and criminal charges.
It is even more concerning that Parliament writ large is considering formalizing the creation of these censorship zones. This should serve as a wake-up call to all of us living in countries governed by elected representatives. There is no freedom more foundational than the right to worship and pray. To take that right away for what the majority views as unpopular causes will lead to fewer freedoms for everyone.
As we enter 2023, we can be grateful for—and praying for citizens in countries without—the First Amendment’s twin protections for speech and religious liberty for all.
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