UK judge allows town to ban prayer, Bible reading inside abortion buffer zone

Christian Concern
Christian Concern

A High Court in England has declared it lawful to criminalize prayer and Bible reading within a buffer zone around an abortion clinic, indicating that English law, despite the illegality of abortion outside the 1967 Abortion Act, seemingly acknowledges a “right” to abortion.

The ruling, handed down by Lord Justice Warby and Justice Thornton, followed a legal challenge by Christian Concern and Livia Tossici-Bolt, a former clinical scientist who leads 40 Days for Life Bournemouth, who contested the legality of a 150-meter exclusion zone surrounding the British Pregnancy Advisory Group’s abortion facility on Ophir Road in Bournemouth, England.

This challenge heard before the High Court and supported by the Christian Legal Centre, the legal arm of Christian Concern, was focused on the Public Spaces Protection Order implemented by Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council in October 2022, Christian Concern said in a statement. The council’s decision, described by lawyers as resulting from an “unlawful” public consultation, was scrutinized through a statutory challenge and judicial review.

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The PSPO was enacted under section 67 of the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014. In January, an amendment to the Public Order Bill introduced “buffer zones” around abortion clinics nationwide.

These zones have been criticized by politicians and campaigners as harsh measures that infringe on free speech and hinder access to abortion alternatives. The ministry of 40 Days for Life, known for offering support to vulnerable women, is particularly affected by these restrictions. Activities such as vigils, offering support and praying within the buffer zone, can lead to fines and imprisonment for up to six months.

The Bournemouth buffer zone is notably distinct, as its boundaries, set by the local authority, encompass both public spaces and private residences. Lawyers argued that this could lead to prison sentences for individuals seen or heard praying against abortion from their homes.

The Christian groups argued that the council exceeded its powers under the 2014 Act. They pointed out that the PSPO unlawfully restricted activities conducted in private spaces and that the police’s authority to remove individuals from the zone was incompatible with parliamentary powers and constituted an abuse of the Act.

Additionally, the legal team contended that the PSPO was invalid due to the absence of consultation with the Chief Constable of Dorset police, a requirement under the law. They also argued that the PSPO lacked authority as it was not passed by Council Resolution.

The enforcement of the PSPO has led to the appointment of “designated” members of the public and council “prayer patrol officers” to monitor the zone. These officers have reportedly ordered volunteers to leave, accusing them of causing “intimidation, harassment, or distress” simply for praying.

Andrea Williams, CEO of Christian Concern, expressed her intention to appeal the ruling, highlighting the role of peaceful witness near abortion facilities in offering women in crisis pregnancies a real choice by providing support. Williams argued that arresting peaceful pro-life advocates in these zones is a clear violation of their human rights.

Williams also criticized the measures implemented by Bournemouth Council, pointing out the absence of evidence showing harassment outside abortion clinics, and suggesting that the real intimidation comes from abortion supporters.

The availability of DIY at home abortions, such as Pills by Post, has significantly reduced the opportunities for offering assistance outside abortion clinics. Consequently, these offers of help have become some of the last remaining sources of support for women who feel pressured into having abortions.

Williams described buffer zones as oppressive elements of a culture that enforces consent and silences dissent, lamenting the loss of human lives as a consequence.

In response to the ruling, Tossici-Bolt vowed to continue supporting women in crisis pregnancies and to fight for justice, underscoring the fundamental rights to freedom of thought and expression.

In August, authorities in Bournemouth pressed charges against a father and British Army veteran, Adam Smith-Connor, for silently praying within a designated “buffer zone” near an abortion clinic.

Smith-Connor, a trained physiotherapist from Birmingham University who serves as the Clinical Director at New Forest Physiotherapy Southampton, was issued a fixed penalty notice last December for allegedly breaching the terms of the buffer zone a month earlier, according to the Catholic News Agency.

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