Policing laws place Christian freedoms at greater risk, warns legal group

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A Christian legal group has expressed fears for free speech and sharing the Gospel as the government clamps down on protests.

Ryan Christopher, director of the Alliance Defending Freedom UK, has warned that a new body of law in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, and government proposals in the Public Order Act 2022 could see Christians and churches penalised and even placed under criminal investigation for expressing their beliefs. 

The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act recently received Royal Assent and gives officers the power to clamp down on "unjustifiably noisy protests that cause harm to others or prevent an organisation from operating".

A government factsheet on the new Act states, "This power can only be used when the police reasonably believe that the noise from the protest may cause serious disruption to the activities of an organisation or cause a significant impact on people in the vicinity of the protest.

"'Impact' is defined as intimidation, harassment, alarm or distress with the police then having to consider whether the impact is significant."

The government has said that such action will only be taken where it "is deemed necessary and proportionate", but Christopher said that the Act "is so broad that it could easily be used to suppress fundamental rights and freedoms".

This could result in Christians who share the Gospel in public or pro-lifers offering support to women outside abortion facilities falling foul of the law, he said. 

Concerned parents coming together to express gender-critical viewpoints in public or near schools could also be construed as risking or causing distress, he warned. 

"Such broad discretion to restrict freedom of speech and religion has no place in a democratic society," said Christopher.

"While the government has given several assurances that fundamental rights will be upheld, the law remains vague, broad and seriously unclear.

"Against the current cultural backdrop, the consequence of poorly drafted legislation will be the routine violation of rights and viewpoint discrimination of ordinary law-abiding people."

He warned that the new Public Order Bill threatens to make the situation "worse", with the government planning to enhance the restrictions contained within the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act.

He raised particular concern over proposals to target those who are associated with a particular protest.

"Given that protest may now be construed to include street preachers and pro-life vigils, this new proposal could bring many churches and charities that support them into the firing line of criminal investigation," he said.

"Such broad discretion to restrict freedom of speech and religion has no place in a democratic society.

"Whilst the government has sought to reassure those concerned that fundamental rights will be upheld, we have seen time and time again the effect of broadly drafted with low criminal thresholds almost always lead to violation of rights and viewpoint discrimination."