Father Sean Gough, a Catholic priest of the Archdiocese of Birmingham, England, faced criminal charges for praying for free speech outside an abortion clinic after business hours in violation of a strict buffer zone law in the English city of Birmingham. “I pray wherever I go, inside my head, for the people around me. How can it be a crime for a priest to pray?” he said in a Feb. 9, 2023, statement from the ADF UK legal group. / Credit: ADF UK
Denver, Colo., Mar 16, 2023 / 12:52 pm (CNA).
Catholic bishops in the United Kingdom said a new law criminalizing prayer and outreach outside abortion clinics in England and Wales discriminates against people of faith.
“We lament that prayer, holding certain views, or peacefully witnessing to the Gospel of life in certain ‘zones’ across these lands may now be a criminal offense,” Auxiliary Bishop John Sherrington of Westminster, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales’ lead bishop for life issues, said March 15.
“Throughout this bill’s passage through Parliament, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales has reiterated its concern that this proposed legislation, despite any other intent, constitutes discrimination and disproportionately affects people of faith,” Sherrington said.
Britain’s House of Commons approved legislation on March 7 to create “buffer zones” across the country, which strictly bans behavior that “interferes with any person’s decision to access, provide, or facilitate the provision of abortion services” around abortion facilities.
The law’s broad provision would prohibit a wide range of behavior, including silent prayer.
Violation would be punished with a fine. However, the fine is potentially unlimited.
Several individuals have already run afoul of buffer zones enacted by localities. Adam Smith-Connor, whose unborn son died in an abortion decades earlier, was fined for praying outside an abortion facility under a protection order in Bournemouth in November 2022.
Isabel Vaughan-Spruce, co-director of March for Life UK, and Archdiocese of Birmingham priest Father Sean Gough were acquitted in February of all charges against them after they were accused of breaking a Birmingham council protection order for praying in front of an abortion clinic. The charges concerned separate incidents. The day before the vote in Parliament, Vaughan-Spruce was detained for praying again outside the same abortion facility.
The bishops of England and Wales were especially concerned that lawmakers rejected an amendment to protect silent prayer and consensual communication in affected buffer zones. The amendment failed by a vote of 299-116.
Religious freedom is essential for society and human flourishing, the bishops’ statement said.
“This includes the right to manifest one’s beliefs in public including through witness, the raising of one’s mind and heart to God in prayer, and charitable outreach,” they added. “Yet this new law potentially inhibits this, restricting freedom of thought, conscience, and religion.”
The bishops emphasized that such zones could be expanded to other topics and these raise “serious questions about the state’s powers in relation to the individual in a free society, both those with faith and those without.”
Paul Coleman, executive director of the religious freedom advocacy group ADF International, characterized the buffer zones as “censorship zones.”
Writing in a March 10 Newsweek essay, he said the law is “about leveraging the full power of government censorship to suppress a particular viewpoint, giving police the authority to question and arrest individuals solely on the basis of their thoughts.”
In their statement, the bishops condemned all harassment and intimidation of women and said there is “little, if any, evidence to suggest that vigil participants engage in these behaviors.” The new law, they said, is too broad and “both disproportionate and unnecessary.”
At the same time, peaceful prayer and outreach outside abortion facilities are part of Christian witness and practice, according to the bishops.
“Christian prayer cannot be confined to places of worship or the privacy of one’s own home,” they said. “In each moment of every day, Christians are called to prayer.”
They cited Jesus’ “greatest commandment,” to “love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our mind, and with all our soul and to love our neighbor as ourself.”
“This new law potentially strikes at the heart of being able to respond to this call and duty,” the bishops said. Christians are called to show “special regard for the most vulnerable and the poorest among us.”
“Who can be more vulnerable than a baby in the womb?” they asked. “As Catholics we hold that life is sacred from the first moment of conception and that harming, attacking, or denying life in these circumstances is completely foreign to the religious and cultural way of thinking of the people of God.”
For decades, since abortion was legalized in 1967, Catholics have taken part in “peaceful and often silent witness to the dignity of human life outside the places where over 10 million unborn lives have been taken.”
“Catholics feel a strong call to witness through peaceful presence to the sanctity of life and the injustice of abortion,” they said.
At the same time, love of neighbor motivates believers to “offer practical help to those in need.” Catholics have long offered “vital practical support outside abortions clinics to expectant mothers who might dearly wish to keep their babies.”
“Where there is need, Christ bids us to serve,” the bishops of England and Wales said.