Stop policing prayer

Do the police not have better things to do than persecuting silent Christians?

Artillery Row

Forget Line of Duty. If you want to watch a policing drama this week, just open up X (or “Twitter”, for those of us born before 2023). Clip after clip of chaos on the streets of England unfolds as one scrolls. Despite frantic attempts from the Met Police account to assure the masses that plenty of arrests were afoot, a belief in orderly control would require blind faith.

One popular clip shows police watching gormlessly while a protestor scales a building, only to hand his Palestinian flag back to him safely when he returns. Another shows a more energetic approach, with the social media cult favourite police officer “Lesbian Nana” — yes, that same officer last seen helping to arrest an innocent autistic girl just a few months ago for comparing her to her lesbian grandmother — jousting a crowd with a pepper spray gun; to seemingly little effect. 

Elsewhere on the World Wide Web, scenes of darker chaos fill our screens. Terrorist flags being waved. Violence-inciting chants sung. Faith schools closing doors. A group dancing in delight on the streets of Birmingham at the news of the Hamas attack. 

Our eyes fill with horror. But one of the clips causing the most confusion and dismay is that of a PCSO officer, employed by West Midlands Police. Notably, she’s not addressing chaos or violence or anti-semitic chants. What she’s addressing is … nothing at all. Silence. Peaceful thoughts.

The clip shows the officer interrogating a Christian, hidden behind the camera, who has been caught in the act of … thinking. The officer inquires as to whether the individual is a member of a pro-life or pro-choice organisation, and whether she might be praying for the lives of unborn children. 

Isabel Vaughan-Spruce — the individual in question — is no stranger to this sort of interrogation. In fact, it is her third. 

Isabel was arrested for praying silently last winter in the very same location — inside a “buffer zone” area imposed by the local council. The buffer zone bans any “expression of approval or disapproval of abortion”, including through prayer. Yet one wouldn’t expect that any such expression could possibly be made by simply thinking silent, prayerful thoughts in the privacy of one’s mind. 

Isabel went to trial, and with support from legal advocacy group ADF UK, was fully acquitted at Birmingham Magistrates’ Court. It’s rather hard, it seems, to present evidence to a judge about what a defendant was or wasn’t thinking about. A good result. Freedom of thought upheld! Surely this showed the police that we are not so Orwellian that they can use the “buffer zone” legislation to police silent prayer? 

Surely the police had learned? Not so

Think again. Only weeks later, Isabel was arrested for a second time for the same apparent “thoughtcrime”. This time, she was subjected to a 6-month police investigation, which ended in complete vindication — investigation dropped, and an apology issued for the length of her ordeal.

Surely the police had learned? 

Not so. On 18th October — amid news of protestors scaling Birmingham’s Odeon Cinema and Primark to release fireworks, and the outrageous glorification of terrorism in pro-Hamas street dance parties, the employees of West Midlands Police chose to focus their attention on what a Christian might or might not be thinking, and which pro-life organisations she may or may not subscribe to.  

“Looking back at it, Vaughan-Spruce should have evaded arrest by shouting ‘Jihad! Slay the Infidel’ and so on,” wrote the indomitable Douglas Murray. Certainly, the montage of footage captured in recent weeks suggests this might indeed have put an end to the police’s interest. “Jihad”,despite being commonly associated with terrorism, we are reassured by the Met Police, “has a number of meanings”. 

Yet Isabel’s silent thoughts were enough. The scales seem oddly unbalanced.

Incidentally, and quite outside of the current news cycle, Birmingham was recently crowned the “Gun Crime Capital” of the UK, overtaking London after a skyrocketing increase in such crime by 86 per cent compared to last year. Residents have raised concerns about a looming spike in crime as the council, which recently declared itself bankrupt, will lack the resources to spend on community initiatives. That same council is the one that would have to fork out the cash to prosecute Isabel.

That Isabel’s peaceful thoughts are being prioritised as criminal actions in such a perilous situation is an insult to the people of Birmingham, who expect police to protect them from real violence, theft and more. 

We had the war on drugs; perhaps a war on prayer is next. The conversion therapy bill looming over Rishi’s final year could potentially make it illegal for a parent or pastor to pray with a young person worried about their gender identity. And the Public Order Act, set to be implemented in the new year, will roll out “buffer zones” around abortion facilities across the country, vaguely banning all forms of “influence” and thus unlawfully rolling even silent prayer into potential criminality. 

The government can start to reset this upturned pursuit of peaceful prayer by clarifying in the Public Order Act guidance that silent thought is never criminal — as protected in international human rights law. Neither, incidentally, is peaceful, consensual conversation between two adults — also potentially caught in the snare of ”influence”. Suella has posed herself as the Queen of Common Sense. Issuing robust, clear, law-based, common-sense guidance to protect the most basic of human rights is her chance to show it.  

As for the rest of us, all we can do is hope, and pray, while we still can.

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