Fundamental freedoms have been dealt an extreme blow by the Parliament of the United Kingdom with the passage of a new bill on Tuesday rolling out so-called “buffer zones” around every abortion facility in England and Wales. The Public Order Bill puts into force 150-meter censorship zones banning any form of “influence,” including silent prayer and consensual conversations, wherever abortions are performed. The U.K., the birthplace of the Magna Carta and many of the foundational freedoms we enjoy in the West, is now leading the charge on a new era of thought-crime prosecution.
One need only look to recent arrests to understand the immense human rights ramifications of the new law. Where censorship zones are already in force, they have engendered severe violations of the right to free expression. Take for example the viral arrest of Isabel Vaughan-Spruce, whose case reveals the state of legal chaos that censorship zones generate. Isabel was first arrested in December for the “crime” of standing in peaceful silence, praying, on a public sidewalk classified as a censorship zone near a Birmingham, England abortion facility. In February, she was acquitted fully in court, only to be arrested once again for the imperceptible act of silent prayer on Monday of this week.
At the time of the second incident, the arresting officer commented: “You’ve said you’re engaging in prayer, which is the offense.” To which Isabel counters: “Silent prayer.” His response says it all —”You were still engaging in prayer, which is the offense.” Censorship zones empower authorities to arrest peaceful individuals on the basis of their thoughts alone. This is a catastrophic failure for a democratic society where every person should have the right to peaceful expression, not to mention, their own thoughts, in the place of their choosing.
And Isabel was not alone in what befell her. Catholic priest Father Sean Gough was criminally charged, and likewise found “not guilty,” for standing in silent prayer in the same zone as Isabel. Absurdly, he was also charged for having an “unborn lives matter” bumper sticker affixed to his car, which was parked in the zone. Army veteran Adam Smith-Connor was fined for silent prayer in Bournemouth, England. Bournemouth offers a particularly outrageous example of censorship zone lunacy. The city has in place an eerily specific ordinance, ominously posted on signposts listing prohibited activities. These include sprinkling holy water, kneeling, reading scripture, and prayer considered to be an “act of approval/disapproval” toward abortion.
Most egregiously, the debate over the new nationwide law revealed that pro-censorship Members of Parliament deem the specific targeting of silent prayer acceptable. It is no accident that prayer, in all of its forms, is captured by the new prohibitions. This triggered a Parliamentary vote on an amendment to exclude both prayer and consensual conversation from the bill, which failed with 116 votes in favor and 299 against. 299 British Members of Parliament think prayer should be an offense under the law in certain public places. Let that sink in.
No doubt the new law will give rise to countless more abuses similar to that of Isabel, Father Sean, and Adam. Peaceful citizens throughout the country are now under real risk of legal sanction for exercising their most basic right to pray, think, and act in accordance with their convictions. At the same time, parts of the U.K. are experiencing rapidly escalating violent crimes without adequate response from law enforcement. What happens when already stretched police resources are redirected to patrol for prayer?
Censorship zone aficionados are quick to cite harassment as justification for these draconian measures. But this is a severe distortion of their real, and intended, impact. Censorship zones don’t “buffer” women from harassment. Harassment is always wrong, which is why it is already fully criminalized under U.K. law. It is clear that these zones are not about the protection of women. What they do is give the state the power to stifle views that are deemed disagreeable—in this case the view that both women and their unborn children are worthy of protection.
Today, the silencing power of the state in the U.K. is being leveraged full-throttle against the pro-life view. Tomorrow, censorship zones could be deployed to target another issue altogether. Parliament has opened the door to ever-proliferating state censorship in the U.K. Who’s to say that the next push won’t be for censorship zones around schools, government buildings, or any other public spaces deemed to require a protective bubble of this sort?
Let this be a clear warning to all concerned with the protection of fundamental freedoms. In the U.S., we must robustly defend our First Amendment protections. The thought police are real and standing by across the pond. Prayer can never be a crime, and nobody should be punished for peacefully living, and thinking, according to what they believe.
Elyssa Koren is an international human rights lawyer and director of legal communications for ADF International. Follow her on Twitter: @Elyssa_Koren
The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.