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Top German Court upholds freedom of assembly: prayer group may pray near abortion organisation 

Leipzig (Germany) (22 June 2023) – In a new ruling, the Federal Administrative Court in Leipzig confirms that blanket bans against peaceful prayer gatherings near abortion organisations are impermissible. Germany’s highest administrative court thus upholds freedom of assembly while Federal minister for Family Affairs Lisa Paus is planning to introduce censorship zones around abortion organisations. Paus announced a Germany wide ban on prayer vigils and offers of support. 

The ruling, communicated on June 20th, ends the legal ordeal for a local prayer group in Pforzheim/Germany led by Pavica Vojnović. A regional court already had confirmed the group’s right to peaceful assembly in August 2022, which was appealed by the city of Pforzheim. The new ruling confirms that the city has no appeal. 

“I’m truly relieved. Our prayers really help, as affected women have told us over and over. I am grateful that we can continue our prayer vigils. Every human life is precious and deserves protection,” said Pavica Vojnović after the decision was handed down. Vojnović’s legal defense was supported by ADF International.   

Peaceful prayer banned  

Twice a year, the 40 Days for Life group regularly gathered to hold silent prayer vigils in front of a Pro Familia abortion counseling facility—the German arm of Planned Parenthood which provides abortion-related counselling and performs and financially profits from abortions throughout Germany.

In 2019, the city of Pforzheim banned the prayer group, despite the four-lane-wide road separating the group from the Pro Familia building. The city prohibited the group from praying within eye and earshot of the abortion organisation. Vojnović, the group’s leader, went to court to challenge the prohibition, arguing that it violated their right to freedom of assembly.  

“The court in Leipzig has once again made clear that peaceful prayer vigils cannot be banned. In view of the clear findings of the court, the federal government would be well advised to abandon its plans to massively restrict fundamental rights in the vicinity of abortion organisations,” stated Dr. Felix Böllmann, Director of European advocacy for ADF International.  

“Freedom of assembly and expression are cornerstones of democracy and the rule of law. That is why blanket bans on prayer assemblies based on mere allegations are contrary to fundamental rights. The courts have recognised this. Standing up for unborn children and peacefully expressing this opinion in front of abortion facilities cannot be banned by powerful lobby groups like pro familia,” said Tomislav Cunovic, Pavica Vojnovic’s lawyer.

Böllmann who is ADF International’s lead lawyer on the case further noted: “The ruling upholds the fundamental importance of freedom of assembly and expression in the public square. The court has affirmed the fundamental right of Pavica and her group to come together to pray in peace. It is duplicitous and misleading to advance bans on prayer gatherings in the name of protecting women. The harassment of women is always, and already, a crime in Germany”. 

Court ruling stands in contrast to the government’s plans to ban prayer vigils 

Federal Minister for Family Affairs Lisa Paus has repeatedly announced a plan to restrict prayer and support services through “legal measures” in the vicinity of abortion-related facilities. Paus also plans to abolish section 218 of the German criminal code, which regulates abortions.  

Court: “Freedom of assembly … constitutive for a free democratic state order”.  

In its 2022 ruling, the Mannheim Administrative Court ruled that: that the “freedom of assembly … is constitutive for a free democratic state order.” In the Federal Administrative Court’s decision, the judges affirm: “It follows from the fundamental right to freedom of assembly that the holders of this right, in particular the organiser, may determine the place, time, type and content of the assembly.” The court firmly rejected prohibiting free expression: “Prohibitions for the purpose of preventing certain expressions of opinion because of their content are all the more excluded.”

“The economic self-interests of an organisation like Pro Familia cannot take precedence over the German citizen’s fundamental right to freedom of assembly and expression. This most recent ruling sends a clear signal to Berlin that blanket bans on peaceful prayer vigils for women in vulnerable situations have no place in a free and democratic state,” said Böllmann.

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