UK’s religion-free speech debates enter ‘thoughtcrime’ zone
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Wherever he goes, Father Sean Gough prays for the people he encounters — sometimes out loud and often silently.
This isn’t unusual, since he is a priest in the Catholic Archdiocese of Birmingham, England. Gough was praying silently when he was arrested near an abortion facility in a Public Spaces Protection Order protected zone while holding a “Praying for free speech” sign. His car was parked nearby, with a small “unborn lives matter” bumper sticker.
The priest was charged with “intimidating service users,” although the facility was closed at the time. The charges were later dropped.
Officers also raised questions about his clothing.
“When interrogated by police for silently praying in the censorship zone, they challenged me for wearing a cassock,” said Gough, on Twitter. “When do I normally wear one? Don’t I realize it’ll be perceived as intimidating? These are not questions a person should be asked under caution in a democracy!”
Clause 11 of a recent Public Order Bill — waiting to be signed into law — would criminalize all forms of “influence” inside a 150-meter “buffer zone” around every abortion facility in England and Wales. An amendment to permit silent prayer and consensual conversations failed by a 116-299 vote in Parliament.
After years of debates about religious liberty and freedom of speech, recent events in England have veered into what activists and politicos have described as “thoughtcrimes,” a term used in George Orwell’s dystopian novel “1984” to describe thoughts that violate ruling-party dogmas.
In the U.S. House of Representatives, eight Republicans circulated a letter claiming it’s “imperative that the U.S. speak boldly and clearly to its friend when the U.K. has failed to protect unalienable rights.” The document condemned policies that “persecute Christians and other pro-life citizens for thoughtcrimes.”
The Life Issues committee for the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales released a statement claiming the bill “could very easily include many things that should never be criminalized such as prayer, thought, peaceful presence, consensual communication and practical support if they are deemed to influence or interfere with access to the clinic.”
Whatever its intent, Clause 11 “constitutes discrimination and disproportionately affects people of faith,” wrote Bishop John Sherrington of Westminster. “We condemn all harassment and intimidation of women and hold that … there are already laws and mechanisms in place to protect women from such behaviors and there is little, if any, evidence to suggest that vigil participants engage in these behaviors.”
The public face of this debate has been Isabel Vaughan-Spruce, the veteran leader of March for Life UK. Charges following a late 2022 arrest for silent prayer were dropped by the Crown Prosecution Service — with a warning that “additional evidence” could surface in the future.
Vaughan-Spruce was then arrested again, standing silently near the same abortion facility in Birmingham.
In a video that went viral, she told an officer: “I am not protesting, I’m not engaging in any of the activities prohibited …” The officer responded: “No, but you said you were engaging in prayer, which is the offense.”
She answered: “Silent prayer,” to which the officer replied, “But you were still engaging in prayer. It is an offense.”
“I disagree,” said Vaughan-Spruce.
March for Life UK volunteers, standing outside the protected zone, often hold “Pregnant — Need Help?” signs, with a telephone number, said Vaughan-Spruce, reached by email. Vigils are held outside St. Joseph’s and St. Helen’s Catholic Church, which is close to the BPAS Birmingham South abortion clinic.
When standing “inside the PSPO/buffer zone I have only engaged in silent prayer and not spoken to anyone, offered a leaflet or held a poster,” she added. The prayers she recites “in my head” are for specific post-abortion women she has counseled and “as a Catholic I also pray the rosary.” She said she is careful to keep her rosary beads in her pocket — out of sight and, thus, not a form of intimidation.
“Every volunteer,” she explained, “signs a statement of peace before joining in the vigil in which they agree to behave peacefully, obey the law, not to use words like murder or murderer, not to block the pavement, etc. I would not label the work we do … as a protest, as I think that generates a completely different image of people waving posters and shouting down megaphones.”