Britain on Tuesday passed legislation banning silent prayer outside abortion clinics and other locations across England and Wales.
“We now have people arrested for praying, interrogated by the police, asked what they’re praying about, what they’re thinking,” stated Conservative former minister John Hayes, “This is dystopian. It’s like a mix of Huxley, Philip Dick, and all that.”
The House of Commons voted 299–116 in favor of creating the so-called “buffer” zones that restrict not only speech but thought. The ban has free speech advocates, religious leaders, and others uniting in opposition.
The Public Order Bill contains powers to make it an offense for anyone who “seeks to influence, advises, persuade, or otherwise expresses opinion” to women accessing abortion services.
Alithea Williams, public policy manager for the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, warned that the buffer zone law “means that ordinary citizens will be branded criminals and subject to crippling financial penalties for witnessing peacefully and offering help to women in need.”
The bill, which is in its final stage, has united opposition consisting of the pro-life, faith community and civil rights groups. Those found guilty of breaching the bill would be fined or jailed. Oppoents say the ban could be expanded to include prayer on any controversial topic in a public space.
Welcome to the UK, where you will be persecuted for free thoughts.
Silently praying is now a criminal offence.
What a great place to live. pic.twitter.com/dz3m43LsGS
— Anna McGovern (@AnnaMcGovernUK) March 7, 2023
MP’s rejected an amendment that would have removed from prosecution those “engaged in consensual communication or in silent prayer” outside clinics or hospitals offering abortion services. In a free vote, the proposal was rejected.
Free speech activists and Conservative MPs expressed deep concern over the legislation.
Conservative MP Andrew Lewer earlier told the Commons, “This section of the Public Order Bill is leading us into the territory of thought crimes and creates unprecedented interference with the rights to freedom of speech and thought in the UK.”
“It is unthinkable that we should be living in a society where what people think has become a matter of police interest,” he said.
Conservative MP Danny Kruger said: “We are making a momentous step, we are crossing an enormous river. When we criminalize prayer or indeed consensual conversations, we are doing something of enormous significance.”
“What are we doing, by saying that people should not be allowed to pray, quietly, on their own?” he added.
In December Professor Andrew Tettenborn, common law and continental jurisdictions scholar and adviser to the Free Speech Union, wrote in The Spectator that he believed “abortion clinic buffer zones are a step towards the end of free speech.”
“It is hard to see this as anything other than a prohibition on speech based on nothing more than somebody else’s preference not to hear it,” he wrote.
“One might be forgiven for thinking that this was exactly what free speech was about,” he added.
Tettenborn says he believes the bill is unprecedented, worrying, and appalling.
“It’s appalling, it gives carte blanche that allows the police to tell people to leave if they are suspected of committing an offense,” he said.
Tettenborn said that the law now means that a police officer can now just go up to someone, ask what they are doing and say, “I reasonably suspect that you might be engaging in silent prayer or offending people going into the abortion clinic, I am ordering you to leave.”
“Yesterday’s vote marks a watershed moment for fundamental rights and freedoms in our country. Parliament had an opportunity to reject the criminalization of free thought, which is an absolute right, and embrace individual liberty for all. Instead, Parliament chose to endorse censorship and criminalize peaceful activities such as silent prayer and consensual conversation,” said Jeremiah Igunnubole, legal counsel for ADF UK.
“Today it’s abortion. Tomorrow it could be another contested matter of political debate,” he added.
ADF UK has supported pro-life activists including a charity volunteer and a priest, who were prosecuted for “silently praying” and breaching an order outside an abortion facility in Birmingham. Father Sean Gough and Isabel Vaughan-Spruce were both acquitted of all charges.
On Monday, footage released by ADF saw Vaughan-Spruce arrested again at the same site, with a policeman saying, “You were still engaging in prayer, which is the offense.”
How do they purpose “proving” what you are doing. i might be praying, I may be simply trying to remember what I had on my grocery list that I forgot to bring with me. Do they not have innocent until Prover guilty? And other than admission, how do they prove thought or prayer?