After months of controversy over freedom of thought in the UK, the Home Secretary has clarified that “silent prayer, within itself, is not unlawful” in a public letter to police forces across the country.
The letter was released days before First Minister Humza Yousaf reiterated his support for a censorial “buffer zones” policy to be rolled out in Scotland in his Programme for Government 2023-2024 launch on Wednesday.
The letter further reminded officers that “holding lawful opinions, even if those opinions may offend others, is not a criminal offence.”
Within the past 12 months, three individuals have been prosecuted for praying silently in their heads near abortion facilities in England.
All stopped to pray, imperceptibly in their minds, within censorship zones or “buffer zones” imposed by local councils in Birmingham and Bournemouth.
“The government’s focus on restoring common sense to British policing is welcome and long overdue. Too often, of late, arrests have been justified by reference to subjective notions of offence rather than an objective application of the law. Politicised policing seriously threatens democracy, which relies on the right to freedom of speech and free and frank exchange of viewpoints to be effectively realised,” commented Jeremiah Igunnubole, Legal Counsel for ADF UK, the legal organisation supporting fundamental freedoms.
Censorial “buffer zones” legislation passed in Westminster, pending in Holyrood
The Home Secretary’s remarks come after the UK government passed legislation in March to introduce “buffer zones” across the country, which would ban “influence” outside all abortion facilities.
MPs failed to pass an amendment which would explicitly protect silent prayer and offers of charitable support for women who would like information about alternatives to abortion. Almost 1 in 5 women in the UK say they feel pressured into having an abortion.
In his announcement of the 2023-2024 Programme for Government this week, Humza Yousaf reiterated that the Scottish Government would support Gillian MacKay MSP’s bill to introduce the same censorial “buffer zones” across Scotland.
Proposals suggest that there will similarly be no protections for charitable volunteers, nor for freedom of thought for those who would pray in their minds.
As a result, citizens “may be prosecuted for the thoughts held inside their minds on certain streets, as we have seen as a result of “buffer zones” in England – bringing back the possibility of literal “thought trials” in Scotland akin to the blasphemy trials of long ago”, remarked Lois McLatchie Miller, spokesperson for legal organisation ADF UK in Scotland.
Silent Prayer Arrests
Isabel Vaughan-Spruce, who was seen being arrested on a viral video last Winter after admitting to police that she “might be” praying in her head, was criminally charged and tried in court in March. She was found “not guilty”, but promptly re-arrested for thinking prayerful thoughts in the same location weeks later.
“It is not for the government to determine my beliefs on abortion, my beliefs that women deserve better support, nor police the faith that I hold in my own mind. I’m delighted to see the Home Secretary clarify to police that it is not a crime to pray inside your own mind. This is a basic tenet of a free democracy – yet I have been arrested twice for doing no more than that,” said Isabel Vaughan-Spruce in reaction to the Home Secretary’s letter.
Months after her second arrest, for which she was released on bail in March, Isabel continues to await news as to whether she will again face criminal charges and be ordered to attend Court.
“If Isabel had been shouting loudly about climate change on the street where she stood, there would have been no arrest. But because her silent, personal thoughts expressed a particular view on abortion – one that is not approved of by the authorities – she was arrested, dragged through the courts, found innocent, re-arrested, and now has been waiting months with a possible court case looming over her while authorities take their time to decide whether her thoughts were allegedly “criminal”,” explained Jeremiah Igunnubole, legal counsel for ADF UK, who continues to support Vaughan-Spruce’s legal defence.
“Widespread abuses of freedom to think”
A father and Afghanistan Veteran is also awaiting justice, having entered a “not guilty” plea at Poole Magistrates Court in August.
Adam Smith-Connor was approached by local council officials and asked “the nature of his prayer” when he was found praying on the street near the Bournemouth abortion facility.
The army veteran prayed with his back to the clinic to avoid any impression that he was there to approach any women accessing the facility. He told officers that he was praying about his own experience of abortion, in which he had lost his son. The resulting fixed penalty notice detailed that Smith-Connor was fined, and subsequently charged, for “praying for his deceased son”.
Smith-Connor awaits criminal trial at Poole Magistrates’ Court in 16th November.
Father Sean Gough, a Birmingham priest, was also criminally tried for silently praying in the Birmingham censorship zone or “buffer zone”. The priest, who has been involved in supporting a counselling ministry for post-abortive women, was also charged for praying for freedom of speech and having a small bumper sticker affixed to his car within the zone, reading “unborn lives matter”. With support from the legal organisation ADF UK, he was found innocent in court in February.
An “urgent need” for legal change
The Home Secretary’s letter to the police force comes as public confidence in policing hits a low, with Ipsos polling revealing this summer that more people rate the current standard of policing in Britain as bad (36%) than good (31%).
4 in 10 Brits believe police are more interested in ‘wokeness’ than catching criminals, according to a survey carried out by Public First.
“The Crown Prosecution Service, the Magistrates, and the Home Secretary have rightly concluded that silent prayer is not unlawful. Freedom of thought is an absolute right. Yet this basic fact, supported by domestic and international law, has not been brought to bear by West Midlands Police and Bournemouth City Council, who have sought to criminalise Isabel Vaughan Spruce and Adam Smith-Connor, respectively, for nothing other than praying in their minds.
There is now an urgent need for legal changes to stem the trend of policing by politics and return to policing by consent. We hope the Home Secretary’s public commitment to tackling the issue will be brought to bear in legislation and guidance,” concluded ADF UK’s legal counsel Jeremiah Igunnubole, who has been supporting the legal defense of all three individuals facing prosecution for silently praying in an abortion facility censorship zone.
Photo: Jeremiah Igunnubole, Legal Counsel for ADF UK (centre), talks to Isabel Vaughan-Spruce and Adam Smith-Connor.