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UK Law Criminalizes Prayer Near Abortion Clinics

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Catholic bishops in the United Kingdom express concern over new legislation criminalizing prayer and outreach activities outside abortion clinics in England and Wales. The bishops argue that the law unfairly discriminates against people of faith. Auxiliary Bishop John Sherrington of Westminster, the lead bishop for life issues in the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales, stated on March 15 that they lament the fact that engaging in prayer, holding certain views, or peacefully witnessing to the Gospel of life within designated "zones" could now be considered a criminal offense.

Highlights

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
6/29/2023 (7 months ago)

Published in Marriage & Family

Keywords: UK, law, criminal, prayer, abortion, clinic

Throughout the bill's progression through Parliament, the Catholic Bishops' Conference has consistently emphasized its apprehension regarding the proposed legislation, asserting that it constitutes discrimination and disproportionately impacts individuals with religious beliefs. On March 7, the House of Commons approved the creation of "buffer zones" across the country, which enforce strict bans on behavior that may interfere with a person's decision to access or provide abortion services near these facilities.

The law's broad provisions encompass a wide range of activities, including silent prayer, and violation of the law can result in a fine, potentially without a set limit. Several individuals have already faced penalties for breaching local buffer zones. For instance, Adam Smith-Connor, who had experienced the loss of his unborn son through abortion decades earlier, was fined for praying outside an abortion facility under a protection order in Bournemouth in November 2022.

In another incident, Isabel Vaughan-Spruce, co-director of March for Life UK, and Father Sean Gough, a priest from the Archdiocese of Birmingham, were acquitted in February of all charges brought against them for allegedly violating a Birmingham council protection order by praying in front of an abortion clinic. These charges were related to separate incidents. Nevertheless, the day before the parliamentary vote, Vaughan-Spruce was detained for praying again outside the same abortion facility.

The bishops of England and Wales are particularly troubled by the rejection of an amendment that would have safeguarded silent prayer and consensual communication within the affected buffer zones. This amendment failed with a vote of 299-116.

The bishops' statement highlights the importance of religious freedom for both society and individual flourishing. They affirm that religious freedom encompasses the right to publicly manifest one's beliefs through witnessing, prayer, and charitable outreach. They argue that this new law has the potential to hinder these freedoms, thereby restricting freedom of thought, conscience, and religion.

Furthermore, the bishops express their concerns that such zones could be expanded to cover other topics, raising serious questions about the extent of the state's powers over individuals in a free society, regardless of whether they hold religious beliefs or not.

Paul Coleman, executive director of the religious freedom advocacy group ADF International, characterizes these buffer zones as "censorship zones." In a Newsweek essay published on March 10, he asserts that the law aims to utilize the full force of government censorship to suppress a specific viewpoint, empowering the police to question and arrest individuals based solely on their thoughts.

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While condemning harassment and intimidation of women, the bishops maintain that there is little evidence to suggest that participants engaging in vigil activities exhibit such behaviors. They argue that the new law is overly broad, disproportionate, and unnecessary.

Simultaneously, the bishops stress that peaceful prayer and outreach outside abortion facilities are integral to Christian witness and practice. They assert that Christian prayer cannot be confined solely to places of worship or private spaces; it is a continuous calling for Christians in every moment of the day.

Quoting Jesus' "greatest commandment" to love God with all one's heart, mind, and soul, and to love one's neighbor as oneself, the bishops contend that this new law potentially hinders individuals' ability to respond to this call and duty. They believe that Christians have a special responsibility to show regard for the most vulnerable and marginalized, and they ask, "Who can be more vulnerable than a baby in the womb?" The bishops state that as Catholics, they firmly believe in the sanctity of life from the moment of conception and that harming or denying life in these circumstances goes against the religious and cultural values of the faithful.

For decades, since the legalization of abortion in 1967, Catholics have engaged in peaceful and often silent witness to the dignity of human life outside abortion facilities, where millions of unborn lives have been terminated. Catholics feel a profound obligation to bear witness to the sanctity of life and the injustice of abortion through their peaceful presence.

At the same time, the love for their neighbors motivates believers to provide practical assistance to those in need. Catholics have long been offering vital support outside abortion clinics to expectant mothers who may strongly desire to keep their babies. The bishops of England and Wales affirm that when there is a need, Christ calls upon them to serve.

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