Prayer, even silent prayer, could be a prosecutable offense in the United Kingdom, thanks to recent developments. Catholic priest Father Sean Gough from Birmingham, England, finds himself in the midst of a legal battle for allegedly violating a censorship zone banning prayer on public streets around an abortion facility. This marks the latest in a string of thought crime cases rocking fundamental freedoms in the U.K.
First came Isabel Vaughan-Spruce. The video of her arrest went viral, showing this pro-life volunteer worker interrogated and searched by Birmingham police in response to the mere act of praying in the privacy of her mind. For nothing more than silent prayer, Isabel was criminally charged for “intimidation,” despite the fact that the abortion facility was closed at the time she was praying.
International outrage ensued. Could this really be happening in the U.K., the birthplace of the Magna Carta and so many of the foundational freedoms we enjoy in the West?
Next, came army veteran Adam Smith-Connor. Similar to Isabel, Adam was fined for allegedly violating a censorship zone surrounding an abortion facility in Bournemouth, England, by way of silent prayer. He was praying for his son, lost to abortion years ago. Adam was not there to protest and ardently opposes the harassment of women in any form. He made sure to pray with his back to the facility to make this clear.
Regardless, local “community safety accredited officers” deemed his thoughts problematic and fined him, and he is currently pursuing a legal challenge to defend the fundamental right to pray and think in accordance with his conscience.
Father Sean’s Case
Now the charges that were levied against Father Sean show that U.K. thought crime prosecution is not a one-off incident. Much of Father Sean’s ministry as a priest is in support of women who face abortion. In fact, he was born because his mother chose life after being urged to abort. Concerned about the state of free speech in his country — most understandably given the spate of recent incidents — Father Sean chose to pray, in silence, for free speech in the vicinity of the same Birmingham abortion facility as Isabel.
To dispel any doubts about that for which he was praying, he held a sign stating: “praying for free speech.” Further, his car was parked in the censorship zone with a permanently affixed “unborn lives matter” bumper sticker. For this, he was interrogated by police about the contents of his thoughts, threatened with arrest, and criminally charged for violating the censorship zone. Strikingly, his case is the first where prayer that is not related to abortion but to free speech has led to criminal charges.
As a priest, Father Sean makes a habit of praying privately everywhere he goes. And now, for prayer, he could be deemed a criminal. Isabel, Adam, and Father Sean all were targeted under “buffer zone” ordinances in place around abortion facilities in a few U.K. municipalities. The one under which Adam was charged goes so far as to prohibit the sprinkling of holy water, genuflecting, or the recitation of Scripture, in addition to prayer considered to be an “act of approval/disapproval” regarding abortion.
Plans for More Censorship Zones
Most recently, Isabel and Father Sean received notifications from the Crown Prosecution Service that their charges were dropped but that they could be reinstated should more evidence arise. Given the immense legal uncertainty that this engenders, both have expressed the intention to pursue a “not guilty” verdict in court — to show that thought crimes have no place in a democratic society.
Currently, the U.K. Parliament is considering the rollout of these censorship zones across the nation via a bill that would have a stifling effect on fundamental freedoms. Based on the severe violations of basic human rights that existing censorship zones have produced thus far, if the national bill passes, we can expect many more abuses.
We must vigilantly defend the right of all to pray, think, and act in accordance with our consciences. And we also must stand on guard to prevent the proliferation of similar laws beyond the U.K. Everyone has the right to peacefully pray when and where he chooses.