“No one should be criminalized for their thoughts,” said Isabel Vaughan-Spruce on the courthouse steps after a British magistrate acquitted her and a Catholic priest, Father Sean Gough, of criminal charges stemming from silent prayer in front of an abortion facility in Birmingham, England.
As the Daily Citizen previously reported, Vaughan-Spruce was arrested by police after someone complained of her presence in front of an abortion facility, in violation of what is known as a Public Spaces Protection Order (PSPO), which creates a censorship zone near each facility inside which no pro-life activity is permitted. She was holding no protest sign, nor was the abortion facility even open, when an officer inquired what she was doing.
“Are you praying,” the officer asked.
“I might be praying in my head,” Vaughan-Spruce responded. Then she was promptly arrested.
Father Gough was also arrested in a separate incident for the same offense of silent prayer in front of a closed abortion clinic. At the time, he was holding a sign that read, “Praying for free speech.” He was also cited for a bumper sticker on his car that read, “Unborn Lives Matter.” His car was parked within the censorship zone.
Although prosecutors later decided not to prosecute the pair, they left open the possibility of doing so later if more evidence was unearthed.
But under British law, Vaughan-Spruce and Father Gough were allowed to ask for their day in court, and did so. That led to the court hearings this week in which prosecutors again declined to prosecute, resulting in the magistrate permanently acquitting both of them.
Vaughan-Spruce spoke to reporters following her acquittal:
I’m pleased that I’ve been cleared of all charges today and to have cleared my name.
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 UK and allowing good people to be criminalized for acts of love.
Isabel Vaughan-Spruce and Fr Sean found NOT GUILTY: Isabel speaking on the steps at Birmingham Magistrates Court pic.twitter.com/ezXsQX6j9j
— March4LifeUK (@March4LifeUK) February 16, 2023
Alliance Defending Freedom – UK (ADF-UK) supported both defendants in their legal efforts. Jeremiah Igunnubole, legal counsel for ADF UK commented on the pair’s “not guilty” verdicts in a press release:
Today’s court case is of great cultural significance. This isn’t 1984, but 2023 – nobody should be criminalised 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 stood in the same spot thinking different thoughts, they likely wouldn’t have been arrested.
Their case may have closed today, but it should be marked in this conversation as a cautionary tale. In the UK, 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.
Vaughan-Spruce and Father Gough are not the only ones facing prosecution for silent prayer in the UK.
Adam Smith-Connor, a 49-year-old physiotherapist, was fined by police in Bournemouth recently for silently praying in front of an abortion clinic where his son had been aborted 20 years ago. The police who approached him interrogated him as to what he was doing, and when he replied “praying,” was then asked about the “nature of” his prayer.
When Smith-Connor replied he was praying for his dead son, the police concluded that he must be praying against abortion and that he had, therefore, violated the PSPO in place there. He is also being supported by ADF-UK who has assembled a legal team to help him fight the fine.
The shocking arrest and fines imposed on the religious beliefs of these three praying individuals happened even though freedom of religion and conscience are protected in the UK under its Human Rights Act 1998, which adopts the European Convention on Human Rights.
Here in the U.S., we may have the First Amendment that guarantees our rights to free speech and the freedom of religion, but as we’ve seen recently, abortion clinics here enjoy the same sort of secular religious fervor and resulting legal protection that they do in the UK.
Our rights are guaranteed by the Constitution, but in practice they are only as good as the judges, prosecutors and legislators entrusted with protecting them. As Christians who care about protecting the pre-born and freedom of thought, we cannot afford to sit idly by as abortion activists attempt to punish and silence our voices – and even our thoughts – in the ongoing cultural struggle to save babies’ lives.
Charges Dropped – For Now – For Praying Outside UK Abortion Clinic
British Woman Arrested for Thinking Wrong Thoughts on Public Street in Abortion ‘Sacred Space’
British Cops: ‘What is the Nature of Your Prayer?’ Man Fined for Praying for Aborted Son
Photo from March for Life.