Our thoughts and prayers should not be criminalised

People like Adam are suffering the draconian consequences of censorship zones

Our thoughts and prayers should not be criminalised

People like Adam are suffering the draconian consequences of censorship zones

  • We are writing to the home secretary, asking her to reject all attempts to implement censorship zones

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Censorship zones ban silent prayer from public streets

Censorship zones ban volunteers from offering help and support to pregnant women

Prayer and offers of charitable help should never be considered criminal. Please sign!

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. 

Dear Suella,  

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. 

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Do censorship zones protect women from harassment?

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.  

What really happens outside abortion facilities?

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. 

What do the national bills for censorship zones ban?

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’. 

Didn’t West Midlands Police clarify that Isabel wasn’t arrested for praying?

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. 

What was the original purpose of PSPOs?

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.  

Is loitering now a crime?

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. 

Is standing wherever you want, whenever you want, is a paramount right?

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. 

Is thoughtcrime really a reality?

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. 

Couldn’t Adam and Isabel have just prayed at home?

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.