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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  • MPs have approached the Home Office demanding a change to draft guidance on “buffer zones” to censor silent thoughts within 150m of abortion facilities 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The draft guidance issued by the Home Office clarified that the prohibition would not concern silent prayer, nor consensual conversations between adults within the zone.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.

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