“It will never happen here.” That’s the general sentiment when discussing feared crackdowns on free speech and religion, with some arguing those sounding alarms merely do so to conjure fear.
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The argument goes as follows: free speech and religion are protected bedrocks and won’t go anywhere, regardless of what faithful individuals warn. For a long time, such warnings about cultural changes, cancel culture, and related subjects have been patently dismissed as acts of emotionalism.
Yet recent events and happenings have called these dismissals into question, with critics likening arrests, detainments, and punishments over religious expression to a “1984”-esque dystopian nightmare in which people are only permitted to speak and act in ways that comport with the cultural whims of the day.
Indeed, the facts on the ground seem to tell a troubling story.
Religious Freedom Under Assault
In the U.S., high school football coach Joe Kennedy spent years fighting back after losing his job for praying on the 50-yard line after games.
He was finally vindicated after his case reached the U.S. Supreme Court and the justices ruled 6-3 in his favor. It took years of fighting, though, going all the way to the highest court in the land to solidify those fundamental rights.
In the U.K., the situation appears even grimmer, with Isabel Vaughan-Spruce, a pro-life volunteer and co-director of March for Life UK, reportedly being arrested a second time for the “offense” of silently praying in her head within an abortion facility’s censorship zone.
These “buffer zones” are apparently places where even silent pleas to the Lord are disallowed. Thus, Vaughan-Spruce was reportedly detained Monday outside the BPAS Robert Clinic in Birmingham.
Police wrongly claimed that the PSPO “buffer zone” banned Isabel from simply standing near a clinic.— ADF UK (@ADF_UK) March 6, 2023
This is simply not true. A court ruled only weeks ago that Isabel broke no laws by thinking a prayer in her mind.
How can MPs roll out this law with so little clarity? pic.twitter.com/whcuDtKvz5
Vaughan-Spruce’s story is particularly troubling, as a U.K. court had just recently acquitted her after she was charged with violating a local Public Spaces Protection Order (PSPO) last December for a previous arrest over the same issue.
CBN News provides a recap of the most recent video showing events leading up to her second arrest:
In the 46-second video, Vaughan-Spruce is shown standing still with her back to a hedge and her hands placed in her coat pockets.
Then several police officers approach her. One officer asks her, “Can I please ask you to step away from here and step outside the exclusion zone?”
Vaughan-Spruce replied, “But I’m not protesting. I’m not engaging in any of the activities prohibited.”
“But you said you were engaging in prayer, which is the offense,” the officer responded.
“Silent prayer,” Vaughan-Spruce counters.
“No, but you were still engaging in prayer. It is an offense,” the officer explained.
Vaughan-Spruce told the officer she disagreed.
“Okay, then. So you would rather that you be arrested and taken away than stand outside the exclusion zone. Is that what you’re saying?” the officer asked her.
🚨BREAKING: Isabel has been arrested, AGAIN, for THINKING.— ADF UK (@ADF_UK) March 6, 2023
MPs vote TOMORROW on banning silent prayer near all abortion facilities in🏴&🏴
“You’ve said you’re engaging in prayer, which is the offense.”
“You were still engaging in prayer, which is the offense.” pic.twitter.com/AId3OguiXz
It’s understandable why some might be confused surrounding Vaughan-Spruce’s actual offense. Why would she be detained if she wasn’t vocally protesting, making noise, or creating a problem?
The officer repeatedly said her crime was the “silent prayer,” but on what basis?
Understanding Public Orders Banning Silent Prayer
Vaughan-Spruce is reportedly not alone in facing such problems, as others have also been caught in the crosshairs for silently praying outside abortion clinics across the U.K.
Public Space Protection Orders (PSPO) are at the heart of these restrictions. These are rules and regulations managed by local communities. These local authorities were given the power to implement such rules in section 59 of the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014.
The goal of PSPOs is to root out “public nuisances or problems.” Any violations of local rules under PSPO guidance is considered a criminal act, according to the Hambleton District Council.
“An order is intended to ensure that people can use and enjoy public spaces, living safely from anti-social behavior,” the council notes. “An order will specify an area where activities are taking place that are detrimental to the quality of life of those in the area and can impose conditions and restrictions on people using the specified area.”
These PSPOs have been used to create the local buffer and safe zones governing protests and activities around abortion clinics, and prayer is included as one of the precluded activities in some of these spaces, according to Christianity Today.
Adam Smith-Connor is yet another man who found himself with a fine after he dared pray this past January outside a clinic in Bournemouth, England.
After telling officers he was praying over events surrounding his deceased son — who had been aborted decades earlier — Smith-Conner was told he violated the local PSPO.
“I would never have imagined being in a position to risk a criminal record for praying silently,” he said in a statement issued by the ADF UK after the incident. “In the past, I assisted with abortions in hospital as part of my army medical training, but now I pray for those who perform abortions because I realize how harmful abortion is to women and families, and that every single human life is valuable — no matter how small.”
He added, “Most of all, I’m moved to pray because of what happened to my son, Jacob.”
Smith-Connor is just one of the individuals impacted by these regulations. As Christianity Today noted, critics worry this represents a “new frontier in the assault on religious liberty.”
These PSPOs are already in effect in cities like Birmingham, Bournemouth, Manchester, Richmond, and Ealing, and similar regulations could reach Northern Ireland and Scotland.
A National Move in the U.K.
It’s one reality to have these zones in specific cities, though it’s an entirely different dynamic to consider regulations unfolding at a broader level in England and Wales.
And yet, that’s exactly what’s happening in the U.K., with nationalized buffer zones around abortion clinics likely to soon become a reality — and with Parliament so far rejecting exempting prayer and silent invocations from the list of offenses.
The Public Order Bill, which has crossed all parliamentary hurdles, creates an approximately 492-foot buffer zone around abortion clinics nationwide and makes what critics call “thoughtcrime” a reality, as the Daily Mail reported.
Clause 10 of the Public Order Bill will likely now criminalize any form of “influencing” outside abortion facilities, which includes prayer, peaceful conversations, or offers to help women with services available to those who would like an alternative to abortion, according to the ADF UK.
These provisions naturally create fears about the erosion of religious freedom and expression.
“This section of the Public Order Bill is leading us into the territory of thoughtcrimes and creates unprecedented interference with the rights to freedom of speech and thought in the UK,” Conservative member of Parliament Andrew Lewer told the House of Commons.
An amendment to the Public Order Bill proposed by Lewer would have allowed people to be “engaged in consensual communication or in silent prayer” outside abortion clinics, but the measure was rejected Tuesday.
With the buffer zones now officially added to the Public Order Bill, it’s unclear what will happen in cases where people still choose to pray in front of clinics.
With a lack of clarity persisting and recent arrests adding to worries, Jeremiah Igunnubole, legal counsel for the ADF UK, warned other issues could soon face the same restrictions and scrutiny.
“Parliament had an opportunity to reject the criminalization of free thought, which is an absolute right, and embrace individual liberty for all,” he said in a statement. “Instead, Parliament chose to endorse censorship and criminalize peaceful activities such as silent prayer and consensual conversation.”
Igunnubole added, “Today, it’s abortion. Tomorrow, it could be another contested matter of political debate. The principle remains that the government should never be able to punish anyone for prayer, let alone silent prayer, and peaceful and consensual conversation.”
While the current amendment calls for fines and not jail time, such penalties are reportedly unlimited. CBN News and Faithwire will continue to cover this story as it develops.
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