I was on trial for praying for free speech
I was acquitted — but I should never have been arrested
On Thursday 16 February, I had to do something which should have been unimaginable in a democracy. I entered the doors of the Birmingham Magistrates Court to defend my right, as a priest, to pray silently on the public street. Having been criminally charged for praying, in silence, in the vicinity of my hometown’s abortion facility, I was there to stand up for my rights to free expression and free thought, and for those of all British citizens. I was thrilled to receive a “not guilty” verdict — each and every one of us has the right to peacefully pray when and where we choose.
Like all of us, my story begins before I was even born. My mom, despite the violent circumstances into which I was conceived, chose life for her baby — me. It is with gratitude for the gift of my life that much of my priesthood has been dedicated to supporting pregnant women in difficult circumstances. Through the work of Rachel’s Vineyard, I have had the honor of using my priestly vocation to walk with women who have suffered from horrific trauma and grief from their abortion experiences. Post-abortion trauma is an underappreciated and complex burden many women (and men) carry throughout their lives. Now that abortions by post are becoming the norm, we are increasingly hearing harrowing stories of women coming face to face with their deceased children while alone at home. The pain is unimaginable. However, through Rachel’s Vineyard and ministries like it, there is hope and healing to be found after abortion.
Shortly before Christmas, the world was shocked by the arrest of Isabel Vaughan Spruce. Isabel has a big heart for women in need — inspiring to us all. Based on her deep conviction that every life is worthy of protection, she chose to pray, in silence, in front of a Birmingham abortion facility. For stating to the police that she “might be praying,” she was charged with violating the local “Public Spaces Protection Order,” creating a censorship zone around the facility. Video footage depicting her arrest went viral. We couldn’t believe that this was the state of fundamental freedoms in today’s U.K.
I too chose to pray in the same censorship zone where Isabel was arrested. For this, I was interrogated, threatened with arrest, and criminally charged. At the police station, I was subjected to intensive questioning as to exactly what I was praying for. The contents of a person’s private prayers should never form part of an interview done under caution. It was indisputably clear that I had been dragged into the dystopian realm of thought crime prosecution.
It bears mentioning that I carried with me a sign when I was praying. Reading “praying for free speech,” the effect of my sign was to make my intentions unambiguously clear. What has happened to Isabel, Adam Smith-Connor — fined for a similar breach in Bournemouth — and no doubt soon others for so long as these zones persist, has exposed the sorry state of free speech in our country. Fundamental freedoms are under attack, and I wanted to pray in the very place at the heart of the issue.
For a long time now, I have had an “unborn lives matter” bumper sticker affixed to the back of my car. This caught the sight of the authorities and was added to my charges since my car was parked in the censorship zone. To the naysayers that accuse me of theatrics or of pushing a polemic point, consider this: would you want to face the threat of arrest for a bumper sticker of your own? What if it had said any word apart from “unborn” before “lives matter”? Today the zone of prohibited expression is a few streets blocks around an abortion facility, tomorrow it could expand to wherever the winds of censorship blow next.
I stand by my bumper sticker — unborn lives do matter, and we all have the basic human right to express our core beliefs. Further, censorship zones do nothing to help women and girls. To those that are trying to muddy the issue by confusing censorship with preventing the harassment of women, let us be clear — we must wholeheartedly stand against the harassment of women in any circumstance. That is why harassment is already a crime, entirely distinct from blanket censorship orders.
While the acquittals Isabel and I received are a good sign, we must not lose sight of the fact that censorship zones remain a prominent threat to basic human rights in our country. Right now, Parliament is debating the Public Order Bill, under which clause 9 would roll out these zones across the whole of England and Wales.
Censorship zones stifle free speech and free thought, and prevent women from hearing about offers of help. This is what happens in dictatorships, not democracies, and I for one will keep on praying for a free and peaceful democratic society for ourselves and future generations.
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