Stop and pray on the street in front of an abortion facility in England or Wales and you could find yourself under arrest. Never mind if your thoughts were lifted to God silently. Clause 11 of the Public Order Bill, recently adopted by the Parliament of the United Kingdom, bans “influencing” of any sort, including prayer, in a 150-meter zone around abortion facilities nationwide. An amendment to exempt silent prayer and consensual conversation from the ban failed, ushering in a new era of modern-day thought crimes in the U.K.
The parliamentary debate played out like a dystopian film script. Concerned Members of Parliament repeatedly raised the question: In a free society, should we really be arresting individuals on the basis of their thoughts? Hell-bent on the introduction of so-called “buffer zones,” the opposition argued that these zones are essential to protect women seeking an abortion from intimidation. When pushed on the question of thought crimes, Rupa Huq, Member of Parliament from Britain’s Labour Party, summed up the pro-censorship view: “There is a time and a place for everything”—including, in her estimation, the banning of silent prayer.
In December of last year, the Supreme Court of Northern Ireland dealt the first death blow to free expression on this issue. The court not only ruled in favor of censorship zones, but also went so far as to uphold the legitimacy of prohibiting “silent prayer which is unwanted, unwelcome and intrusive.” Per the court, behavior deemed “silent but reproachful” can and should be banned in a censorship zone. This set a grim precedent for what soon would befall England and Wales.
In parliament, the censorship zone provision was first voted through the House of Commons in October, then debated in the House of Lords, and finally adopted by the Commons on March 7. The bill was modified so that the penalty for breach of the zone was reduced from a prison sentence to a fine. While under debate, two individuals were charged and one fined for silent prayer in the English cities of Birmingham and Bournemouth, where censorship zones already are in force. Their stories went viral, showing the world that the U.K. really is weaponizing the law to punish peaceful people for praying on the street.
Pro-life volunteer Isabel Vaughan-Spruce was arrested in December for the “crime” of silent prayer in a Birmingham censorship zone. In February, she was acquitted fully in court, only to be arrested once again for the exact same act on the day before the parliamentary vote that passed Clause 11. The arresting officer commented: “You've said you're engaging in prayer, which is the offense.” To which Isabel replied: “Silent prayer.” His answer spoke volumes—“You were still engaging in prayer, which is the offense.”
Next came Catholic priest Father Sean Gough, who was criminally charged, and likewise acquitted, for praying silently in the same Birmingham zone. In addition, he was charged for having an “unborn lives matter” bumper sticker on his car, which was parked in the zone. Army veteran Adam Smith-Connor was fined for silent prayer in Bournemouth. The city has in place an absurdly specific ordinance, banning a host of activities ranging from sprinkling holy water, kneeling, reading Scripture, and praying in the vicinity of the local abortion facility.
Despite these egregious, and very real, examples of thought crime prosecution, what happened to Isabel, Father Sean, and Adam is now a nationwide reality in the U.K. Following the adoption of the new law, the potential for infringements on fundamental freedoms is immense. Strikingly, the proposed amendment to exempt silent prayer and consensual conversation from the law lost in parliament with 116 votes in favor and 299 against—a dark day for democracy. Two hundred and ninety-nine British Members of Parliament think prayer in certain public places should be an offense under the law.
Censorship zones generate widespread legal chaos, equipping the state to criminalize peaceful activities on the public street with disastrous consequences for a free society. And yet their proponents claim they are protecting women. While laudable in theory, this goal is but a farce. Harassment is always wrong, which is why it is already a crime under U.K. law. These zones have nothing to do with preventing harassment. You don’t need football field-sized silencing zones to accomplish that. This is about stifling a certain point of view—in this case, the view that every unborn child has the right to life.
Every person should have the right to peacefully think, pray, and act in accordance with his or her convictions. Following the introduction of these draconian prohibitions, we can expect severe consequences for fundamental freedoms in the U.K. Today the state is leveraging its silencing power to promote abortion, but tomorrow it could extend similar measures to other issues. It is high time all concerned with the preservation of a free society stand on guard against the thought police.
Elyssa Koren is an international human rights lawyer and director of legal communications for ADF International, which supports the defense of Isabel Vaughan-Spruce, Father Sean Gough, and Adam Smith-Connor.
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