In March of this year, the United Kingdom notoriously became the first Western democracy to go so far as to ban even silent prayer in the name of abortion “rights” across all of England and Wales. Scotland is considering a similar move. The German government has repeatedly indicated the same.
However, on June 20, a top court in Germany ruled that the government cannot impose blanket bans on peaceful prayer gatherings outside abortion facilities. The significance of this ruling is momentous; it comes at the same time the German federal government is attempting to introduce a nationwide ban on prayer and pro-life gatherings around all abortion facilities. However, in light of last week’s ruling, Germany will now have to think twice before moving forward with the intended introduction of “censorship zones” across the country.
This is a win for all in Germany who desire to exercise the right to peacefully pray and gather without fear of government punishment.
The story goes as follows: Twice a year, members of the pro-life group 40 Days for Life would gather in front of an abortion facility in the city of Pforzheim to hold a silent prayer vigil. Pro Familia — the German partner of Planned Parenthood — complained, which led the city to ban the group from praying across the street from the facility in 2019.
In August 2022, a lower court ruled in favor of the right to peaceful assembly. And now, the Federal Administrative Court has upheld the group’s fundamental human right to gather peacefully — affirming the importance of free speech and free assembly as the pillars of a “free democratic state order.”
Should Germany follow through with its family minister’s commitment to outlaw prayer gatherings in the vicinity of abortion facilities, a clash with the judiciary will inevitably follow.
But for now, the recent ruling is a reason to celebrate.
Pavica Vojnović, leader of the Pforzheim 40 Days for Life group, expressed her joy following the ruling.
“I’m truly relieved. Our prayers really help, as affected women have told us over and over,” she said. “I am grateful that we can continue our prayer vigils. Every human life is precious and deserves protection.”
Following last August’s win for 40 Days for Life, the city of Pforzheim appealed the case — an indicator of the lengths to which authorities will go to silence opposition. When that appeal was rejected, the city once again fought the decision, culminating in the top court’s verdict that the city has no further right to appeal.
Both the freedom to assemble and the right to express one’s convictions are cornerstones of a democratic society. But these rights increasingly are threatened across the world. What we are seeing is a global trend to censor expressions that challenge the prevailing orthodoxy. We live in a time when expressions of dissent, no matter how peaceful, are all too often met with the repressive force of the state.
Proponents of prayer bans often invoke the protection of women as the leading impetus for their crusade. However, it is duplicitous and misleading to cloak these repressive acts of censorship in the name of women’s rights and with the argument that even silent prayer constitutes harassment or intimidation toward women seeking an abortion.
As is the norm in Western democracies, harassment of women is already punishable by law in Germany. It therefore can and should be handled according to real laws protecting women. But the simple act of peaceful prayer — such as that displayed by the 40 Days for Life group in Pforzheim — is no crime.
Germany’s current government also has pledged to decriminalize abortion, which is currently broadly illegal in the country but remains widely available in certain cases or if conditions of mandatory counseling are met before 12 weeks of pregnancy. This potential decriminalization of the practice — and its ensuing consequences for unborn life — only further affirm the need to resolutely defend our rights of conscience.
And the importance of preserving these rights extends beyond Pforzheim. We have seen similar events unfold in the U.S. among peaceful advocates of the pro-life movement.
Thankfully, reason has prevailed over ideology in the German judiciary for now. This will hopefully send a deterrent signal to the government’s ambition to ban prayer and offers of help for women in difficult situations.
All people have the right to peacefully express their convictions — to gather together in the pursuit of a more just world. Let us celebrate the German court’s recognition of these fundamental human rights and pray that the right to pray be protected everywhere.