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'Prayer patrol': Activist takes legal action against town ordinance restricting free speech

Livia Tossici-Bolt
Livia Tossici-Bolt |

A pro-life activist has launched legal action to stop an English town's ordinance that authorizes police and community officers to prohibit prayer outside an abortion clinic.

Livia Tossici-Bolt, a former clinical scientist who leads the Bournemouth chapter of the pro-life organization 40 Days for Life, is seeking a statutory review of a Public Spaces Protection Order (PSPO) passed in October by the council of Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole areas.

Activists say the ordinance restricts their ability to protest and pray outside the British Pregnancy Advisory Group's clinic in the coastal resort town.

Also known as a buffer zone, the ordinance impacts a 150-meter area surrounding the BPAS clinic on Ophir Road, Bournemouth. The order bars protesting against abortion services through "graphic, verbal or written means, prayer or counseling." The ordinance also prohibits "vigils where members audibly pray, recite scripture, genuflect, sprinkle holy water on the ground or cross themselves if they perceive a service-users is passing by."

Anyone charged with violating the order is "required to give their name and address to a police officer, police community support officer or other person designated by BCP Council." 

The Christian Legal Centre, a nonprofit legal group, helping represent Bolt, contends that the order was passed following a "questionable" public consultation process. In a statement, the group explains that PSPOs are typically reserved for tackling anti-social behaviors like drug and alcohol abuse and dangerous dogs.

Before the order, a few primarily female 40 Days for Life volunteers offered help and information on abortion alternatives to women outside the clinic. The group contends that the ordinance criminalized its ministry.

ADF U.K., another legal nonprofit aiding bolt, helped Tossici-Bolt file a complaint against the authorities last month for breaching her freedom to pray on a public street.

Tossici-Bolt claims she was praying with a friend in a public space when local authorities warned her that the prayer could cause "intimidation, harassment or distress." They were asked to move away. 

The volunteers held a sign that read: "Pregnant? Need Help? 020 7724 6658." They didn't use megaphones. 40 Days for Life also offers leaflets to people entering the clinic, offering material help to families and women in need. 

"Everyone has the freedom to pray quietly in a public place. I would never dream of doing something that causes intimidation and harassment," Tossici-Bolt said. "We complied with the new rules instituted by the council and didn't pray within the censorship zone. Yet nevertheless, these prayer-patrol officers tried to intimidate us out of exercising our freedom of thought and of expression — in the form of prayer — which has been a foundational part of our society for generations."

Last month, U.K. parliamentarians raised concerns in Westminster that instituting censorship zones around abortion facilities across the country could create a "slippery slope" of increasing censorship in U.K. legislation.

"The principle of so-called 'buffer zones' erodes the basic tenets of democracy — that is, in this country, we are allowed to hold different views and beliefs," ADF U.K. Communications Officer Lois McLatchie, said.

Tossici-Bolt's legal team argues that the council has exceeded its powers because officials wrongly sought to prohibit peaceful and lawful behavior that can't be characterized as "anti-social." They claim that the PSPO violates Tossici-Bolt's human rights under Articles 9, 10 and 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

"There is no evidence whatsoever to show that anyone is being harassed outside abortion clinics. The truth is quite the opposite. It is the abortion supporters who intimidate and harass and do not permit any dissenting viewpoint," CLC Chief Executive Andrea Williams said in a statement.

"Buffer zones are an oppressive part of the current culture which force consent and silence dissent. The saddest thing of all is that we are actually talking about human lives.

Last month, Isabel Vaughan-Spruce, head of the 40 Days for Life Birmingham, filed a demand for a statutory review of Birmingham's PSPO. According to CLC, the order unlawfully prohibits the ministry from praying outside of the BPAG's Robert Clinic in the Birmingham ward of King's Norton.

Such "buffer zones" have also been enacted in some municipalities in the United States.

Last January, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a request by a pro-life group to hear a challenge to a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, law that created a "buffer zone" around abortion clinic entrances.

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