Silent prayer is not unlawful, says Home Secretary

Isabel Vaughan-Spruce being spoken to by a police officer outside an abortion clinic in Birmingham.(Photo: ADF UK)

The Home Secretary has told police forces up and down the country that people should not be criminalised for praying silently. 

Suella Braverman said in a letter that "silent prayer, within itself, is not unlawful" and that "holding lawful opinions ... is not a criminal offence". 

The release of her letter comes in the wake of several cases involving pro-life campaigners arrested for praying silently within abortion clinic buffer zones. 

Isabel Vaughan-Spruce, co-director of the UK March for Life, was criminally charged after telling police that she "might be" praying in her head when she was approached by officers within a buffer zone.

She stood trial in March and was cleared but subsequently re-arrested in a similar incident a few weeks later. She is still waiting to hear if she will be charged a second time. 

Father Sean Gough, a Birmingham priest, stood trial alongside Vaughan-Spruce and was also cleared. 

Adam Smith-Connor, an Afghanistan veteran, received a fixed penalty notice and was charged after telling officers he was praying about his own experience of abortion, which resulted in the loss of his son. He is due to stand trial at Poole Magistrates' Court on 16 November.

All three have been supported by the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF UK), which argues that buffer zones are "censorial" and a threat to democracy.

The group's legal counsel, Jeremiah Igunnubole, welcomed Braverman's intervention. 

"The government's focus on restoring common sense to British policing is welcome and long overdue," he said.

"Too often, of late, arrests have been justified by reference to subjective notions of offence rather than an objective application of the law.

"Politicised policing seriously threatens democracy, which relies on the right to freedom of speech and free and frank exchange of viewpoints to be effectively realised."

The Westminster government passed legislation earlier this year to roll out buffer zones outside abortion clinics across the country. An amendment that would have protected silent prayer and offers of charitable support to women was rejected.

In Scotland, First Minister Humza Yousaf last week reiterated the Scottish government's support for a bill introduced by Gillian Mackay MSP to introduce buffer zones. 

ADF UK's spokesperson in Scotland, Lois McLatchie Miller, said it may lead to citizens being "prosecuted for the thoughts held inside their minds on certain streets ...  bringing back the possibility of literal 'thought trials' in Scotland akin to the blasphemy trials of long ago".