BIRMINGHAM, England (Alliance Defending Freedom) — The charity volunteer and the priest on trial for praying in an abortion facility censorship zone have both been acquitted of all charges in a ruling handed down by Birmingham Magistrates’ Court this morning.
In a viral video in December, Vaughan-Spruce was seen being searched and arrested by three police officers after saying that she “might be” praying inside her head.
The area surrounding the facility nearby which she prayed has been covered by a local Public Spaces Protection Order (PSPO), in force since November, which prohibits prayer, distributing information about pregnancy help services, and other activities considered to constitute “protest.”
The volunteer, who has supported women in crisis pregnancies for over twenty years, was charged with “protesting and engaging in an act that is intimidating to service users,” despite the fact that the abortion facility was closed during the time in which she was present and praying, and despite her clear statement that she was not there to protest.
Reacting to the verdict this morning, Vaughan-Spruce made the following statement outside the court:
I’m glad I’ve been vindicated of any wrongdoing. But I should never have been arrested for my thoughts and treated like a criminal simply for silently praying on a public street.
When it comes to censorship zones, peaceful prayer and attempts to offer help to women in crisis pregnancies are now being described as either ‘criminal’ or ‘anti-social.’ But what is profoundly anti-social are the steps now being taken to censor freedom of speech, freedom to offer help, freedom to pray and even freedom to think. We must stand firm against this and ensure that these most fundamental freedoms are protected, and that all our laws reflect this.
Priest vindicated after prayer charges
Similarly, Father Sean Gough was charged for praying within the same censorship zone in Birmingham. He remained silent, but made his intentions clear by holding a sign reading “praying for free speech.” He received a further charge related to parking his car, which for some time has had on it a small “unborn lives matter” bumper sticker, within the same area.
For peacefully supporting free speech within the censorship zone, Gough was charged with “intimidating service-users” of the abortion facility. This was despite the fact that all this happened while the abortion facility was closed.
Both Vaughan-Spruce and Gough were supported by ADF UK, a charity committed to protecting and promoting fundamental freedoms.
“I’m pleased that I’ve been cleared of all charges today and to have cleared my name,” Gough said, adding:
I stand by my beliefs – unborn lives do matter. But whatever your views are on abortion, we can all agree that a democratic country cannot be in the business of prosecuting thought crimes.
If the government imposes censorship zones around every abortion facility in the country, as they are considering doing with the Public Order Bill currently under discussion, who knows how many more people will stand trial, even face prison, for offering help, or for praying in their mind?
I call on the government to look into the overwhelming positive work that pro-life groups do to support vulnerable women at their point of need, before censoring the streets of the U.K. and allowing good people to be criminalized for acts of love.
Government considers nationalising censorship zones
In the coming weeks, the House of Commons will debate the rollout of censorship zones across the country. Clause 9 of the Public Order Bill would criminalize any form of “influencing” outside of abortion facilities, which would include prayer, with a potential prison sentence of up to two years.
Reflecting upon today’s verdict in light of the parliamentary debate, Jeremiah Igunnubole, legal counsel for ADF UK said:
Today’s court case is of great cultural significance. This isn’t 1984, but 2023 – nobody should be criminalized for their thoughts, for their prayers, for peaceful expression on a public street. It’s a great moment to celebrate the vindication of Father Sean and Isabel. But our Parliament is considering rolling out censorial legislation, which could lead to more situations where people’s thoughts are on trial. Let’s be clear – if Isabel or Fr. Sean had been stood in the same spot thinking different thoughts, they likely wouldn’t have been arrested.
We all stand firmly against harassment on public streets. Harassment is already illegal. A government review in 2018 found that harassment near abortion facilities is rare, and peaceful prayer and offers of charitable help were the most common activities there. The government concluded at that point that censorship zones would be disproportionate. No further reviews have since been conducted. What has now changed?
This is the kind of peaceful activity that Fr. Sean and Isabel were engaging in – simply praying, without judging or condemning – simply praying. Their many years of support for women in crisis pregnancy, and support for women who have been negatively impacted by abortion, testify to their good character. It’s great that they have found justice, although with such gruelling legal battles, the process is often the punishment. Their case may have closed today, but it should be marked in this conversation as a cautionary tale. In the U.K., freedom of thought, prayer, offers of help, and peaceful conversation are not illegal and we call on Parliament to reject the creation of more censorship zones through vaguely worded public order legislation.
Reprinted with permission from Alliance Defending Freedom.