C: Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF)

WATCH: MPs warn about ‘thought crimes’ as arrests for prayer continue

Northern Ireland MPs have challenged British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on exclusion zones banning silent prayer at abortion centres in Britain, in a heated exchange in the House of Commons.

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, along with DUP MP Carla Lockhart, took Sunak to task over what they deemed the “criminalisation of prayer” facilitated by the zones. They were speaking weeks after English woman Isabel Vaughan-Spruce, a pro-lifer, was arrested in Birmingham for admitting to UK police “I might be [praying] in my head” when questioned about what she was doing yards away from an abortion facility.

The DUP, which has a pro-life position on abortion, on Tuesday hosted Ms Vaughan-Spruce at Westminster following the altercation last month. The 45-year-old was arrested and charged with four counts of breaching an exclusion zone outside the abortion centre at Kings North in Birmingham. She is set to appear in court on 2 February.

The arrest comes after Birmingham City Council brought in the Public Space Protection Order (PSPO) at the abortion centre with the stated goal of ensuring “people visiting and working there have clear access without fear of confrontation”.

A video of her arrest later went viral across social media, with many people expressing shock surrounding the arrest, amid claims censorship zones are now resulting in the policing of thought and a limiting of freedom of religion.

Northern Ireland MPs have challenged British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on exclusion zones forbidding prayer or outreach at abortion centres in Britain, in a heated exchange in the House of Commons.

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, along with DUP MP Carla Lockhart, took Sunak to task over what they deemed the “criminalisation of prayer” facilitated by the zones. They were speaking weeks after English woman Isabel Vaughan-Spruce, a pro-lifer, was arrested in Birmingham for admitting to UK police “I might be [praying] in my head” when questioned about what she was doing yards away from an abortion facility.

The DUP, which has a pro-life position on abortion, on Tuesday hosted Ms Vaughan-Spruce at Westminster following the altercation last month. The 45-year-old was arrested and charged with four counts of breaching an exclusion zone outside the abortion centre at Kings North in Birmingham. She is set to appear in court on 2 February.

The arrest came after Birmingham City Council brought in the Public Space Protection Order (PSPO) at the abortion centre with the stated goal of ensuring “people visiting and working there have clear access without fear of confrontation”.

A video of her arrest later went viral across social media, with many people expressing shock surrounding the arrest, amid claims censorship zones are now resulting in the policing of thought and a limiting of freedom of religion.

 

Speaking out after the incident, where Ms Vaughan Spruce was directly asked “Are you praying?”, the pro-life campaigner said: “Nobody should ever be subject to harassment. But what I did was the furthest thing from harmful – I was exercising my freedom of thought, my freedom of religion, inside the privacy of my own mind. Nobody should be criminalised for thinking and for praying, in a public space in the UK.”

In the weeks following Vaughan-Spruce’s arrest, another pro-life individual, an army veteran named Adam Smith-Connor, faced opposition for praying silently near an abortion facility. Smith-Connor was fined and is now challenging a council fine – based on him telling officers that he was praying for his son, who he lost to an abortion.

Following Vaughan Spruce’s visit to Parliament, DUP Leader Mr Donaldson asked Rishi Sunak to review laws banning prayer at abortion centres, so as to ensure that England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are “beacons of religious freedom” across the world. He said the issue was not about abortion itself – but about religious freedom.

“She [Vaughan-Spruce] was questioned by police about her thoughts – not her spoken or written words. This is unacceptable. This is not about abortion. This is about religious freedom in the United Kingdom in 2023,” the MP said.

Ms Vaughan-Spruce was hosted by Upper Bann MP Carla Lockhart, who also hit out at her arrest – as she urged police to focus on “tackling real crime”.

“I trust our Prime Minister would agree that no one should be arrested because of their thoughts or prayers and our constabularies across the UK should be allowed to focus on tackling real crime instead of being required to police our thoughts,” the NI MP said in an address to the Prime Minister.

In response, Mr Sunak said that the matters were under discussion in Parliament, as he insisted the UK does believe in freedom of religion and expression.

“Of course we believe in freedom of religion, belief and expression in this country, but we are also balancing that with the rights of women to seek legal and safe abortions,” he replied. That is currently being discussed in this Parliament,” he said.

He also stressed that such issues are “always matters of a free vote in Parliament”.

Ms Lockhart took the opportunity to highlight the ramifications of similar censorship zones which were voted in favour of in Northern Ireland last year. The strict rules banning prayer and outreach by pro-life campaigners could come into force once they receive Royal Assent. She described the impact of potential legislation as “startling”.

“In Northern Ireland, the potential impact of our legislation is startling when you consider the consequences of GB legislation,” she said. “We are now firmly in the realm where ‘thought crimes’ like prayer are a policing priority.”

The legislation in the North was introduced via a Private Members Bill by former NI Green Party MLA Clare Bailey, who lost her seat at the Assembly elections last year.

Ms Bailey, a former abortion centre escort, claimed introducing the zones were an essential part of healthcare. The legislation, which was voted through at Stormont by parties including Sinn Fein and the SDLP, will make silent prayer or protest inside 150m censorship zones around abortion centres a criminal offence in the North.

The PSNI will have the power to move anyone along who breaches the law, Ms Bailey said last year, adding that those who break the law face fines of up to £500.

Meanwhile, ‘safe access zones’ in the Republic are set to ban pro-life people praying or offering alternative information on abortion, with a Dail Committee informed last week that the zones will apply to all eligible health facilities and not just those currently providing abortion.

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