Authorities in the United Kingdom charged a Catholic priest with violating a censorship zone when he silently prayed outside an abortion clinic while holding a sign that said “praying for free speech.”
Father Sean Gough, a pro-life priest stationed in Wolverhampton, England, had also parked his car in the area near the abortion clinic, which is covered by a Public Spaces Protection Order, according to Alliance Defending Freedom International. Authorities also took issue with Gough’s car, which has an “unborn lives matter” bumper sticker on it, ADF said.
Gough was charged with “intimidating” abortion clinic “service-users,” the organization said, noting that when police initially approached Gough, they allegedly told the priest that they did not think hew as breaking any rules. After Gough was asked to come to the police station and interrogated about the situation, he was criminally charged, according to ADF International.
“I pray wherever I go, inside my head, for the people around me. How can it be a crime for a priest to pray? I often pray in my head near the abortion facility, but when confronted by the authorities, I was praying for free speech, which is under severe pressure in our country today,” Gough said in a statement.
“At all times, I believed my actions to be lawful – freedom of expression, especially when peaceful, is protected in domestic and international law,” he continued. “It is deeply undemocratic to censor public streets, particularly those spaces where we know that many women have benefitted from peaceful offers of help about services available.”
Gough is one of several individuals who face fines and criminal charges for praying outside an abortion facility in the United Kingdom. In Gough’s case, it was his prayer for free speech, rather than prayer against abortion, that has drawn the UK authorities’ wrath.
In December, U.K. authorities arrested Isabel Vaughan Spruce after she told them that she was “praying” in her “head.” Video of the incident shows that police then search her, arrest her, take her to a police station where they interrogate her, and charge her with breaking the Public Space Protection Order by silently praying.
English authorities also are seeking to punish a British army veteran for praying silently in front of an abortion facility in Bournemouth in November, for which authorities issued Adam Smith-Connor a 100-pound fine (about $123.65). Smith-Connor said that he was praying for his son, who died in an abortion.
“I’m sorry for your loss, but ultimately, I have to go along with the guidelines of the Public Space Protection Order to say that we are in the belief, therefore, that you are in breach of the PSPO, which says about prayer and also acts of disapproval … ,” the officer said.
Meanwhile in the United States, the Justice Department has been using the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act to crack down on pro-life activists like Mark Houck, a father of seven arrested in front of his crying children for a 2021 incident at an abortion clinic that local authorities had already dismissed.
Jeremiah Igunnubole, legal counsel for ADF UK, said in a statement that “nobody should be criminalised for peaceful activities like praying for the state of free speech in our country, or having a simple bumper sticker on their car that expresses a belief that ‘unborn lives matter’.”
“This case demonstrates the far-reaching and illiberal consequences of so-called ‘buffer zones’,” Igunnubole said. “Father Sean’s years of service to women in crisis pregnancies are testimony to the good of his character and intention.”
“Father Sean is understandably seeking clarity as to the lawfulness of his actions,” he added. “Though charges were dropped after several weeks due to ‘insufficient evidence,’ he has been warned that further evidence relating to the charges may soon be forthcoming, implying the entire grueling process could soon restart from the beginning.”
“This is a clear instance of the process becoming the punishment and creating a chilling effect on freedom of expression in the UK – a value that this government, incidentally, had promised to champion in their election manifesto.”
Tyler O’Neil contributed to this report.
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