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Two UK Catholics acquitted after being charged for praying in front of abortion clinic

Isabel Vaughan-Spruce (center-left) and Father Sean Gough (center-right) celebrate their legal win outside the Birmingham Magistrates Court in Birmingham, England, on Feb. 16, 2023. / Credit: March for Life UK

Boston, Mass., Feb 16, 2023 / 10:00 am (CNA).

Two U.K. Catholics, one of whom is a priest, were acquitted Thursday of all charges against them after they were accused of breaking the law for praying in front of an abortion clinic.

The two were represented by legal counsel from the faith-based law firm Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF UK) at the Birmingham Magistrates’ Court in Birmingham, about a three-and-a-half-hour drive northwest from London.

Jeremiah Igunnubole, legal counsel for ADF UK, said in a Feb. 16 statement that “today’s court case is of great cultural significance. This isn’t 1984, but 2023 — nobody should be criminalized for their thoughts, for their prayers, for peaceful expression on a public street.”

Both Father Sean Gough — a priest of the Archdiocese of Birmingham — and Isabel Vaughan-Spruce, co-director of March for Life UK, were charged with violating a local Public Spaces Protection Order that censors speech in the area around a Birmingham abortion clinic.

A Public Spaces Protection Order is meant to protect others from “antisocial behavior” and “specify an area where activities are taking place that are or are likely to be detrimental to the local community’s quality of life and impose conditions or restrictions on people using that area,” according to the local government’s website.

This specific order gives local authorities the ability to “address” certain activities, including holding prayer vigils, sprinkling holy water or making the sign of the cross as a patient walks by, genuflecting, reciting Scripture, protesting, and physically or verbally interfering with a staff member or patient.

Gough said Feb. 9 that he stood near a closed abortion clinic on Station Road in Birmingham with a sign that said “praying for free speech.” Police officers approached him and at first told him they did not believe he was breaking Birmingham’s Public Spaces Protection Order.

Officials invited him to an interview at the police station where they questioned him about his actions and criminally charged him with “intimidating service users” of the abortion clinic. He faced a second charge related to an “unborn lives matter” sticker on his parked car.

Vaughan-Spruce was arrested Dec. 6, 2022, in Birmingham outside an abortion facility that was closed at the time.

Video footage of her arrest shows an officer asking her if she was praying, to which she answers: “I might be praying in my head.” You can watch the exchange in the video below.

She was charged Dec. 15 with four counts of breaking Birmingham’s Public Spaces Protection Order around the abortion facility.

The charges against both Gough and Vaughan-Spruce were eventually dropped because of insufficient evidence against them, Elyssa Koren, legal communications director for ADF UK, told CNA Thursday.

However, even though the charges were dropped, the Crown Prosecution Service — which is the government’s prosecutors in England and Wales — still could have reinstated charges if more evidence were to be discovered.

Both Spruce and Gough had the legal right to pursue a formal acquittal in court in a case where the government may be able to reinstate proceedings against them, so they did, Koren said.

“Because of the legal ambiguity that this created, both Isabel Vaughan-Spruce and Father Sean Gough stated their intention to have their charges formally acquitted, which happened today,” Koren told CNA.

“I’m glad I’ve been completely vindicated of any wrongdoing but I should never have been arrested and treated like a criminal simply for silently praying on a public street,” Vaughan-Spruce said on the court steps, according to March for Life UK.

“Everyone has a right to pray in their mind,” Gough said outside the courthouse.

“I’m pleased that I’ve been cleared of all the charges today and have cleared my name. It’s wrong for the authorities to censor parts of the street from prayer, even silent prayer, from peacefully having conversations and sharing information that could be of great help to women who want an alternative choice to abortion,” he said.

“It’s a great moment to celebrate the vindication of Father Sean and Isabel,” Igunnubole, their legal counsel, said. “But our Parliament is considering rolling out censorial legislation, which could lead to more situations where people’s thoughts are on trial. Let’s be clear — if Isabel or Father Sean had stood in the same spot thinking different thoughts, they likely wouldn’t have been arrested.”

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  1. The law as reported in the article seems somewhat vague, which is a common technique used by totalitarian regimes as it gives wide discretion to the judges in interpreting the law. In Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, the law allowed judges to sentence people to death for any act deemed detrimental to the public good or contrary to the will of the people . . . as understood by the judges themselves.

    Thus — depending on how the law is worded — a schoolboy passing through a designated area on his way to take an exam and mentally praying, “Oh, Lord, help me pass this test” would be guilty of a crime. There is also the issue that if a person can be arrested for what he or she MIGHT be doing, but for which no direct proof exists, then anyone can be arrested for anything, anywhere, anytime, and it is up to the suspect to prove his or her innocence, which is logically impossible. It is up to the court to prove guilt, not the suspect to prove innocence. “I might be mentally praying” is as true a statement as “I might be mentally trying to levitate to the Moon” — someone MIGHT be doing just about anything, but without actual proof, the grounds for arrest are fatuous in the extreme, completely aside from the fact that no one should be arrested simply for thinking.

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