Army veteran charged for silently praying in “buffer zone”
Local authorities have filed criminal charges against Adam Smith-Connor for praying in an abortion facility censorship zone. His trial is set to take place on 16 November.
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BOURNEMOUTH/POOLE, UK (9th August 2023) – Adam Smith-Connor, army veteran and father, has pled “not guilty” to charges related to breaking a local “buffer zone” regulation by praying silently, in his mind.
Smith-Connor was issued a fine by local authorities after he was caught praying silently near an abortion facility on Orphir Road, Bournemouth, and was questioned as to “the nature of his prayer”.
“We are standing in the nation of the Magna Carta, the nation which has championed democracy and freedom. We have a history of upholding human rights we can be proud of, and a respect for freedom that I fought to uphold when I served this country for twenty years in the army reserves, including in Afghanistan. Yet here I stand before you on the steps of Poole Magistrates Court being prosecuted – for a thought crime.
The facts of my case are clear. I am accused of breaching an abortion clinic buffer zone by praying for my son Jacob and other victims of abortion, for their families and for abortion clinic staff on Ophir Road Bournemouth. I did not approach anyone, I did not speak to anyone, I did not breach any one’s privacy. I simply stood silently. I am being tried for the prayerful thoughts I held in my head,” said Adam Smith-Connor upon exiting the court.
Smith-Connor, who was praying silently for those facing difficult decisions relating to abortion, as well as praying regarding the child that he lost to an abortion that he now regrets paying for, is expected to enter a plea of “not guilty”. His legal defense is supported by ADF UK.
Jeremiah Igunnubole, Legal Counsel for ADF UK, was present at court with Smith-Connor.
“This marks the third time this year that we at ADF UK have come to the defence of a citizen facing charges simply for their thoughts, exercised in a public space. If Adam had been thinking about an issue other than abortion – for example, climate change – then there would be no hearing taking place today. Citizens in this country should be equally free to hold thoughts about the important social issue of abortion, and how it has impacted their lives and the lives of their loved ones. And in any democracy with a respect for religion freedom, all should be allowed to pray to the God that they worship, no less, in the privacy of their own minds.
In permitting the prosecution of silent prayer, we are sailing into dangerous waters regarding human rights protections in the UK. Censorship zones are inherently wrong and engender unhelpful legal confusion regarding the right to free thought. Both domestic and international law have long established freedom of thought as an absolute right that must not ever be interfered with by the state,” said Jeremiah Igunnubole, legal counsel for ADF UK, the organisation supporting Adam Smith-Connor’s legal defense.
Outside the court, supporters congregated with 1984-inspired signs decrying the “thoughtpolice”: “looks like you’ve had a little too much to think!”
On 13 October 2022, Bournemouth Council outlawed any act of disapproval and approval related to abortion within a specified area near the abortion facility. Prayer and counselling are specifically prohibited.
On 3 November, Smith Connor walked and prayed silently within the censorship zone, stopping to pray momentarily outside the facility itself.
On 17 November, Smith-Connor was again within the censorship zone praying silently. Police officers attended the scene to question him about his presence before concluding that “ …what you’re doing now, you can do. I can’t make you leave because it’s a public space, this is England and you are allowed to stand here and do that.”
On 21 November, Bournemouth Council wrote to Smith-Connor reminding him of the prohibition against prayer in the order, namely “4a – Protesting, namely engaging in an act of approval/disapproval or attempted act of approval/disapproval, with respect to issues related to abortion services, by any means. This includes but is not limited to graphic, verbal or written means, prayer or counselling.”
On 24 November, Smith-Connor stood motionless and prayed silently within the censorship zone. Council officers arrived and questioned him on why he was present within the zone, to which he responded that he was “praying for my son who is deceased”. The officer stressed that the PSPO did not permit prayer within the prohibited area and asked him to leave.
- Smith-Connor asked for clarity as to reasons why he was being asked to leave, given that he “was not manifesting in any way”, and others were present in the restricted area. The officers said that they “only need to have the belief” that he was engaging in prayer, which was satisfied by his admissions to silent prayer.
- They then asked Smith-Connor to leave the censorship zone, which he declined. He was then handed a written notice confirming their request and restating the offence of refusing to comply with a requirement of an authorised officer.
On 13 December, the Council emailed Smith-Connor a Fixed Penalty Notice for praying silently on 24 November, stating specifically that this was based on his comment that he had been “praying for [his] son”. The Notice required payment of £100 by 29 December and warned the consideration of legal proceedings should payment not be received.
On 19 December, Connor-Smith wrote to the Council acknowledging receipt of the Fixed Penalty notice and declining to pay the fine as he had not breached the PSPO.
On 23 January 2023, the Fixed Penalty Notice of 13 December 2022 was rescinded by the Council with an instruction to Connor-Smith that he “discount” it. Another Fixed Penalty Notice was issued, referring to the same incident of November 24, 2022.
On 24 March 2023, with support from ADF UK, Smith-Connor’s legal team submitted that:
- The officer had no reasonable grounds for holding yhe belief that Smith-Connor had breached the PSPO
- The requirement that Smith-Connor leave the area and the decision to issue the FPN was an interference with his absolute right under Article 9(1) to hold a religious belief.
- All that Smith-Connor was doing was holding a belief in his head. He was not manifesting his belief by doing some act having a potential to affect other persons. His act was purely internal
- the provision(s) of the Ophir Road PSPO of which he was believed to be in breach did not have the requisite character of “law” for the purposes of Article 7 [as] the PSPO is too vague, overly broad, and insufficiently accessible [and as such] conduct which is in breach of the [PSPO] provision is not reasonably foreseeable for individuals.
- But for the fact that he was practising his Christian faith by praying to God about abortion he would not have been asked to leave. Were another person engaged in silent thought within the PSPO zone not of a prayerful nature, then the BCP Council officials would not have made an instruction that such other person was required to leave the PSPO zone. [Smith-Connor] was treated less favourably than another person in an analogous situation based on his faith and core beliefs.
On 12 April 2023, the Council responded warning that if Smith-Connor refuses to pay the FPN, the Council may decide to prosecute him.
On May 24, six months elapsed since Adam prayed silently outside the abortion facility. The statutory time limit (under section 127 of the Magistrates Court Act 1980) for bringing a prosecution against him therefore applies.
Army veteran, Adam Smith-Connor, is challenging a council fine, based on him saying: “I’m praying for my son, who is deceased.”
We’ve already seen Isabel, a charity volunteer, arrested and charged for silently praying near an abortion facility. And while we await Isabel’s court hearing next month, we’re now assisting Adam, a father and military veteran who has been fined by local authorities.
His offence? Praying for his son, who died as a result of abortion 22 years ago, near an abortion facility in Bournemouth.
Like Isabel, Adam was standing still and silent on the public street for a few minutes before he was approached by community safety accredited officers.
A censorship zone or so-called “buffer zone” has been in place in the area since last October. The zone was implemented by local authorities through a Public Spaces Protection Order (PSPO) which criminalises engaging in “an act” or even “attempted act” of “approval/disapproval, with respect to issues related to abortion services, by any means.
This includes but is not limited to “graphic, verbal or written means, prayer or counselling” within an area surrounding the abortion facility. The PSPO further prohibits religious acts, including reading scripture or crossing oneself.
Adam was issued the fine on the basis of the PSPO, and the council say it specifically relates to his comment that he was “praying for his son, who is deceased”.
Captured on video, the council officer responded, “I’m sorry for your loss. But ultimately, I have to go along with the guidelines of the Public Space Protection Order, to say that we are in the belief that therefore you are in breach of clause 4a, which says about prayer, and also acts of disapproval…”. When Adam interjected, “I’m just standing praying,”, she again responded, “I do understand that. But the PSPO is in place for a reason and we have to follow through on those regulations.”
Does this sound like a free and democratic society to you?
Nobody should be criminalised for what they believe – not least when they silently express those beliefs in the privacy of their own minds.
As you know, parliament is poised to pass legislation that would place national censorship zones or “buffer zones” around abortion facilities across England and Wales.
Where censorship zones have been put in place already by local councils, innocent people have been criminalised simply for praying silently – lifting their thoughts to God.
We saw this happen in the case of Isabel Vaughan-Spruce, the charity volunteer arrested after she told police that she “might be” praying in her head. And we saw this happen in the case of Adam Smith-Connor, the military veteran who has been fined, according to Bournemouth City Council, for “praying for his deceased son”.
No free society can ever police thoughts, nor make arrests on the basis of what one is thinking. Freedom of thought is protected as an unconditional, absolute right under Article 9 of the ECHR.
But Clause 9 of the Public Order Bill will make it illegal to “inform”, advise”, “persuade”, “influence” or merely “express opinion” if you hold certain views and happen to be standing in certain public spaces.
We all condemn the harassment of women in any circumstances. According to a Home Office Review in 2018, instances of harassment outside of abortion facilities are rare, and police already have the powers to deal with such situations appropriately. The most common activities outside abortion facilities are either praying, or offering leaflets about charitable help available for women who would like to avoid abortion if they had another option. Neither of these activities should be criminal.
We, the undersigned, therefore ask you to protect freedom of speech and of thought. Please protect human rights, and reject all attempts to implement censorial “buffer zones” on our streets.
ADF UK stand firmly against harassment against women in any circumstances. Censorship zones (so-called “buffer zones”) aren’t the solution to protecting women from harassment. Harrassment is illegal in England, Wales and Northern Ireland under – to name just one example – the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 (and the adjacent Protection From Harassment (Northern Ireland) Order of the same year). In Scotland, if someone is engaging in harassment, they can be subject to a non-harassment order. If that order is breached, it’s an offence with up to 2 years jail time. Censorship zones, then, wouldn’t newly ban harassment. They would, however, newly ban other forms of behavior which are perfectly legal, protected in human rights law under freedom of speech, thought, and assembly, and indeed can be a vital lifeline to women.
In 2018, the UK Home Office conducted a review into the situation outside abortion facilities across the country. Taking into account evidence gathered about instances of harassment, the Home Secretary at the times said this: “…what is clear from the evidence we gathered is that these activities are not the norm, and predominantly, anti-abortion activities are more passive in nature. The main activities reported to us that take place during protests include praying, displaying banners and handing out leaflets.” (Since 2018, there has been no evidence of a substantive escalation of any violence, abuse or harassment outside of abortion facilities). The Home Secretary thus concluded that: “Introducing national buffer zones would not be a proportionate response, considering the experiences of the majority of hospitals and clinics, and considering that the majority of activities are more passive in nature.” This conclusion indeed corresponds with the testimonies of women who say they felt helped, not harassed, by volunteers nearby abortion facilities. Alina Dulgheriu is one such woman who has made her story public. When she found herself in a crisis pregnancy, she was alone, abandoned and jobless. Like almost 1 in 5 women who have abortions, she felt pressured into the decision. She thought she had no choice but to abort her child. Fortunately, Alina received a leaflet about help available, right at her point of need. She chose to accept the offer, and flourishes as a mother today. Find her story, as well as others, at www.behereforme.org.
Couldn’t silent prayer make women feel uncomfortable? Wouldn’t it be better to pray privately in a Church?
Silent prayer is possibly the most private action which one could manifest in public – an expression of thought. In a free and fair democracy, everyone sometimes feels discomfort when confronted with a different thought or idea. Part of upholding an equal society is allowing for a diversity of opinion in the public square. Although someone might find the idea of public prayer outside of an abortion facility disagreeable, this doesn’t mean that it’s right to arrest and restrict the rights and freedoms of others.
In Scotland and Northern Ireland, proposed national buffer zones legislation broadens criminal liability to any “influencing activity”. The scope of this term is so vague and unclear that it betrays the basic rules of good law. Indeed, the scope is so broad that it would inevitably lead to numerous unjust arrests and needless interferences with the fundamental rights of people to freely think and speak on the public street. In a recent submission to the Supreme Court, the Lord Advocate for Scotland made clear her belief that silent prayer should be treated the same as violent or threatening behaviour, alleging that silent prayer could be ‘psychologically damaging’.
West Midlands Police’s tweet was misleading to the extent that it purports to be a clarification. It a) omits the terms of the PSPO and b) provides incomplete details of the charge.
The tweet also suggested that Isabel was arrested ‘to protect women from harassment’ when seeking an abortion. But they appear to have missed a crucial fact: the abortion clinic was closed when Isabel prayed. No woman would have been seeking an abortion at that time.
And even if the abortion centre was open, standing still and unassuming in a public space is an impermissibly low bar for criminal liability. Parliament did not introduce PSPOs to reduce the threshold of criminal harassment to include peaceful and harmless conduct.
PSPOs were designed to grant local authorities the power to target particular anti-social activities such as dog fouling, control of fires & barbecues etc. Parliament did not intend such orders to be used as unaccountable tools to restrict fundamental rights and freedoms.
Unlike Court Orders, injunctions or other targeted measures, PSPOs are not targeted at any specific individual and are easier for councils to implement with more limited accountability and scrutiny.
Standing in a public space is not a criminal offence in the UK, not even under the PSPO. Both Isabel and Adam were not standing on private land, so there could be no allegation of trespass.
Likewise, to be arrested for harassment under public order legislation, it would need to be shown that they were threatening or abusive – which was evidently not the case.
The only way an accusation of anti-social behaviour or a public order offence is if prayer and offers of charitable help are now considered to be intrinsically disruptive, harassing, and intimidating when done in public spaces near abortion facilities? If so, that would be at odds with our hard-fought legal traditions of protecting freedom of speech and belief.
Are so-called offers of charitable help not just anti-choice covers for harassment and intimidation?
For those who remain unconvinced that pro-life volunteers outside abortion facilities help women, please see the accounts of these women.
Pro-choice advocates should see the glaring inconsistency in arguing for a woman’s right to choose abortion while simultaneously denying their right to choose to engage in offers to discuss charitable alternatives to abortion.
A woman’s freedom to choose to keep her child does not suddenly disappear as she approaches the public spaces around an abortion centre.
The idea that a decision has already been made ignores the fact that women are often unsure, coerced, confused or otherwise pressured toward abortion.
Importantly, the idea that a woman has already made her decision when approaching the abortion centre cannot be reconciled with the fact that abortion centres are themselves meant to provide counselling support, including support for those wishing to keep their child.
Such support would be unnecessary if it is assumed that the visiting woman has already made an unchangeable decision.
No. The paramount rights in law, in this case, are freedom of thought and religion. Freedom of thought is an absolute right, which means the state cannot interfere with it under any circumstances.
Freedom of religion can only be interfered with by the state when strictly necessary and proportionate to do so. Given that Isabel and Adam both stood and prayed silently in a public space, it is hard to see how an arrest, prosecution or penalty fine could ever be justified.
The question of intentions is a good one that ought to be more common in debates concerning criminal law. Increasingly, we are seeing criminal laws apply without reference to the accused’s intentions, with the feelings of the accuser treated as almost sacrosanct, and officers unthinkingly arresting individuals in public spaces based on reports that some bystanders are offended instead of considering the fundamental rights at play.
In a democratic society, being offended by others is a given. It is a significantly less costly price to pay than ceding fundamental rights to the state. We know from history that once fundamental rights are ceded, the state will very rarely, if ever, willingly give them back.
The law should be able to differentiate between silent unassuming prayer and charitable offers of help and criminal harassment and intimidation. PSPOs conflate all of these, bringing the threshold of criminality to an impermissibly low level. The government should look at the PSPO legislative regime and either scrap it in its entirety or expressly prohibit any interference with the peaceful exercise of fundamental rights.
The reference to intimidation in Isabel’s charge is particularly alarming. At all material times, Isabel prayed silently while the abortion facility was closed. The wording of the charge appears to accuse her of intimidating by silent prayer, which is wholly new territory.
This question misses the point and displays the basic religious illiteracy that has been all too common from British police officers in recent years ranging from the routine arrest of street preachers to denying the late David Ames MP access to priests.
Of course, Isabel or Adam could have prayed at home. But the more pertinent question is whether or not the state can legitimately restrict their ability to pray silently about abortion in a public space.
A climate protester standing next to Isabel or Adam would not have been arrested. Assuming Isabel kneeled in prayer to God and was next to a campaigner doing the same for BLM, only Isabel would have been arrested. Isabel was arrested for the nature of her thoughts, who she was thinking towards (God) and where she was thinking them.