Two MPs push for further crackdown on silent prayer despite outcry over “thought crime” arrests

  • MPs have approached the Home Office demanding a change to draft guidance on “buffer zones” to censor silent thoughts within 150m of abortion facilities 
  • Politicians ignore public outcry over incidents of arrests for silent prayer in the past year; ADF UK have supported the legal defence of 3  individuals charged over “thoughtcrime” 

LONDON (3 February 2024) – Labour’s Rupa Huq and Conservative Sir Bernard Jenkin reportedly met with the Home Office this week to demand a stronger crackdown on silent prayer occurring within 150m of abortion facilities.

Parliament voted to introduce “buffer zones” as part of the Public Order Act 2023, with vague legislation which would prohibit all forms of “influencing” within a large area of public space near the abortion facility.

The draft guidance issued by the Home Office clarified that the prohibition would not concern silent prayer, nor consensual conversations between adults within the zone. International law requires the UK government to protect freedom of thought as an absolute right. The right to engage freely and consensually in conversations is protected by the fundamental right to freedom of speech.

“The relentless efforts of MPs to further target silent prayer expose the falsity that this campaign is about preventing harassment. We all agree that harassment is wrong, it has always been unlawful and the police have indicated they have the tools to deal with it. In demanding changes to the guidance to ensure it captures prayer, these MPs have unwittingly exposed the reality of who they were seeking to target in the first place,” said Jeremiah Igunnubole, Legal Counsel for ADF UK.

Public Outrage at arrests for silent prayer

The guidance follows various incidents within the past year where, under existing laws, local authorities have introduced local “buffer zones”, and individuals have been arrested merely for praying silently in their minds.

Last year, a video of charitable volunteer Isabel Vaughan-Spruce caused public outrage after she was arrested for saying that she “might be praying inside [her] head.” The footage was viewed over 15 million times on X (formerly Twitter).

Vaughan-Spruce was charged for her thoughtcrime but fully vindicated at Birmingham Magistrates’ Court, who found her “not guilty”. Under the ambiguous language of the Public Order Act, Isabel could potentially face criminal penalties on the basis of the thoughts in her mind in future.

Mounting concerns over UK “thought policing”

“I’ve been arrested twice and fully vindicated by a court verdict that upheld my freedom of thought, and yet even still, officers can continue to interrogate me for the simple act of thinking prayerful thoughts on a public street. This isn’t 1984, but 2023. No matter one’s beliefs on abortion, nobody should be punished merely for the prayers they hold inside their head.

Ahead of the new ‘buffer zones’ law being implemented, there is an urgent need for clarity as to everybody’s right to freedom of thought, as is protected in international human rights law. The Home Office’s draft guidance at least affirms that nobody should be criminalised on the basis of their thoughts alone. This is obvious common-sense protection for basic rights that must be upheld,” said Isabel Vaughan-Spruce.

On a different occasion, a Catholic Priest was arrested and charged for holding a sign within a buffer zone reading “praying for free speech”. With support from ADF UK, Father Sean Gough was found “not guilty”.

In a third instance in November 2022, a father of two and army veteran, Adam Smith-Connor, was criminally charged for praying about his own experience of abortion in a “buffer zone”. Over a year from when Adam committed his “thought crime”, he still awaits his trial. ADF UK is supporting his legal defense.

“Over the past 18 months, ADF UK hasresponded to an unprecedented need to support members of the British public facing criminal penalties or trials based merely on the thoughts that they held in their head. The UK must abide by its human rights obligations, under which nobody should be criminalised for their thoughts. It’s vital that we maintain this most basic standard of a liberal democracy. Once we allow for thought to be policed on one issue area, the precedent has been set for these abuses to proliferate.

Nobody should ever face harassment or aggression outside an abortion facility. But the law must protect the rights of those who are there to peacefully live out their convictions through offers of help or even silent prayer. It’s imperative that the Home Office respect these basic principles when finalizing its guidance,” said Jeremiah Igunnubole, legal counsel for ADF UK, the organisation which supported Vaughan-Spruce’s legal defence.

German government announces draft law introducing censorship zones around abortion-related facilities, fines up to 5,000€

Pavica und Felix

BERLIN (29 January 2024) – A new draft bill, announced last week by Germany’s Federal Family Minister Lisa Paus (Green Party), would introduce fines of up to 5,000€ ($5,500) for peaceful expression on public streets near abortion-related facilities. The bill would seek to create nationwide censorship zones around the facilities, criminalising messages that could be subjectively understood as “disturbing” or “confusing,” with no legal clarity as to how those terms are to be interpreted. Harassment is already fully illegal, independent of the proposed new law, which would target peaceful expression. The Federal Cabinet approved the bill last week. It will now move through the Bundesrat (Federal Council), which can introduce amendments, followed by the legislative process, including three readings in the Bundestag (Parliament).  

The UK Parliament adopted “buffer zone” legislation in 2023, expected to come into force throughout all of England and Wales soon. Existing zones under local laws already have resulted in numerous human rights violations including police interrogations, arrests, fines and criminal proceedings for silent prayer on the public street near abortion facilities, essentially resulting in “thought-crime” prosecutions. Currently, army veteran Adam Smith-Connor is awaiting trial for silent prayer in Bournemouth, England. 

Germany’s proposed new law would be in direct contravention to a 2023 decision from the country’s top administrative court upholding the freedom of assembly across the street from an abortion facility. The ruling affirmed the rights of Pavica Vojnović and her 40 Days for Life prayer group, which conducted silent prayer vigils on the public street in Pforzheim, Germany. Such an exercise of basic human rights would likely run afoul of the proposed new legislation.   

“Peaceful gatherings, prayer and offers of help should never be banned. The plans of the German government are alarming—not only do they put blanket restrictions on fundamental freedoms, but also they weaken civil society’s engagement for the protection of the right to life. Any form of harassment is obviously forbidden. But censorship zones are not pro-choice, they are no-choice and have no place in a free and democratic society,” said Dr. Felix Böllmann, German lawyer and Director of European Advocacy at ADF International.  

Bill contradicts court rulings 

In recent years, ADF International has supported the legal defense of pro-life volunteers in Germany who exercised their right to pray peacefully, including in silence, in front of abortion-related facilities. Germany’s top administration court confirmed that blanket bans on prayer gatherings are impermissible. According to the court, there is no “right to be buffered from dissenting opinions”. The new bill goes far beyond criminalising already illegal harassment to propose blanket bans on peaceful and fully legal activities such as prayer or offers of help.  

The draft bill thus contradicts standing court ruling upholding freedom of assembly and free expression on the public street in the vicinity of an abortion-related facility absent manifest infringements of third party rights.  

Restricting free expression supports abortion lobby 

“Standing law in Germany obliges the state and civil society to protect unborn life. Committed pro-life individuals must not be criminalized for the peaceful expression of their convictions. Every human being has dignity and a right to life, from the moment of conception. The state and citizens should work together to protect life. Instead, people with civil courage to uphold the fundamental right to life are now being deterred, and even potentially criminalised, for their commitment,” said Ludwig Brühl, German Communications Officer for ADF International. 

“We stand with the right of every person, including peaceful pro-life advocates, to freely express their convictions. The freedoms of assembly, opinion, and religion benefit all people. That is why we are defending these core human rights from the encroaching plans of lobby organizations and ideologues,” concluded Dr Felix Böllmann. 

Images for free use in print or online in relation to this story only