WIN for Grandmother arrested for prayer walk - but parts of UK seek to make public prayer ban permanent
Is a silent prayer on a public street a criminal act? Not according to the case of 76-year-old grandmother Rosa Lalor, from Liverpool, who has successfully challenged a penalty given to her while out walking and silently praying near an abortion facility.
When approached by a police officer during the lockdown in February 2021, Lalor had been questioned as to why she was outdoors. She answered that she was “walking and praying”. The officer responded that Lalor wasn’t praying in a place of worship, and that she did not have a “reasonable excuse” to be outdoors at that time. The officer claimed that Lalor was there to “protest”. The grandmother was arrested, detained, and issued a fine.
Merseyside Police have now conceded that such detention was wrong, and that Lalor was acting within her rights, indeed having a “reasonable excuse” to be outdoors praying.
“I’m delighted that the prosecution has finally dropped this charge after a long and exhausting battle for justice. I took this challenge forward with support from ADF UK to show that we do all have a fundamental right to pray – not least pray as I did, in the privacy of my own mind. It was wrong for the police officer to tell me that I could not pray in a public street. It’s important for officers to respect basic religious freedom, and improve their understanding of how that right manifests, in order to maintain a truly tolerant society,” commented Lalor.
But despite the police force deeming Lalor’s actions to be a reasonable excuse under coronavirus legislation, Liverpool council is now seeking to introduce censorship zones to prevent the kind of activity for which Lalor has now received full vindication.
Meanwhile, the so-called “Abortion Services (Safe Access Zones) Northern Ireland) Bill” to prevent “influencing” a person, whether directly or indirectly, within 100m of abortion facilities, will face scrutiny at the UK Supreme Court today (19-20th July). The Northern Ireland Attorney General, Dame Brenda King, has referred the bill to the Supreme Court citing concerns that the bill omits a defence of ‘reasonable excuse’ and is therefore incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.
A Right to Pray Upheld
Merseyside Police have dropped charges against Lalor on the basis of legal arguments submitted with the support of human rights group, ADF UK.
The police force accepted that Rosa was acting well within her rights to pray whilst she was walking in a public space. They accepted that Rosa’s actions were reasonable and should not be curtailed under coronavirus regulations.
Furthermore, they accepted that she had a right to pray as protected by Article 9 of the ECHR, which states that everyone has a right to manifest their freedom of thought, conscience and religion, “either alone or in community with others and in public or private”.
“We’re thrilled to celebrate a victory for Rosa today, but it is deeply regrettable that this law-abiding woman was subjected to distressing, drawn-out criminal proceedings in the first place, no doubt due to her pro-life stance. This follows a worrying trend in law enforcement where individuals are routinely arrested simply because their views are considered to be controversial or offensive,” said Jeremiah Igunnubole, legal counsel for ADF UK, who supported Rosa’s case.
Lalor’s defense also highlighted that police officers cannot arrest an individual based solely on their interpretation of the legitimacy of a particular point of view. Neither can officers express a view about the acceptability of an opinion that is a matter of political and social debate. “This would amount to viewpoint discrimination,” explained Igunnubole.
Last February, Merseyside Police apologised for wrongly claiming ‘being offensive is an offence’ as part of a campaign to encourage people to report hate crime. The force came under criticism after the message appeared on a billboard in Wirral.
It later clarified that while hate crime is an offence, ‘being offensive is not in itself an offence’.
“There is now an urgent need for the upskilling of police officers across the country to ensure that they have a proper grasp of the right to freedom of expression and religion as it relates to public order. Law, policy, and training practices must be improved to restore the public’s confidence in policing and stem the trend of unjust arrests. Officers should be prioritising real crimes that concern ordinary people rather than being the agents of cancel-culture,” Igunnubole concluded.
Pro-life prayer group 40 Days for Life also supported Rosa’s case, and welcomed the win and its wider implications for those who pray outside abortion facilities nationwide:
“This is an important win, because authorities cannot simply decide to censor prayer on the street. We are committed to engaging in prayer because we believe that women and babies deserve far better than abortion, and that we can find solutions to support both lives in a pregnancy. We are always delighted to point women to charities and services where they can receive support to continue their pregnancy, should they want it. We hope that Rosa’s story sends a clear message that in a democracy, there is space for freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, freedom of speech and freedom of thought – and that censorship is a disservice to everyone,” said Robert Colquhoun, International Director of 40 Days for Life.
A permanent ban on public prayer?
Liverpool and Bournemouth councils have recently launched consultations about bringing in the measure, which would prohibit pro-life volunteers from speaking – including giving offers of financial and practical help to women looking for an alternative option to abortion – on public streets in the vicinity of abortion facilities. Aberdeen council approved measures to censor public street last week.
In Richmond and in Ealing, where buffer zones have already been implemented, even silent prayer is prohibited in the 150m zone – a move likely to be copied by other Councils.
In Northern Ireland, new regulations prohibit the act of “influencing” within 100m of an abortion facility. The bill’s legitimacy will be scrutinised by the UK Supreme Court on 19th-20th July.
“The criminalisation of any kind of ‘influencing’ is so broad that it could reduce the threshold of criminality to an impermissibly low level. We know from a Home Office Review into the situation that instances of harassment outside of abortion facilities are rare, and when it happens, police already have powers to stop it. Buffer zones introduce a blanket ban on all activity, including offering meaningful charitable help and support to women where they need it most,” said Lois McLatchie, communications officer for ADF UK.
Since the ban was first implemented in Ealing in 2018, mothers who benefited from the offers of help made by pro-life volunteers outside abortion clinics have been campaigning under the banner “Be Here For Me” to end the censorship of such services.
““What kind of society withholds help from vulnerable women? I didn’t want an abortion but I was abandoned by my partner, my friends and society. My financial situation at the time would have made raising a child very challenging. Thanks to the help I was offered by a group outside of a clinic before my appointment, my daughter is here today. My experience is typical of hundreds of others. Refusing charitable volunteers from offering much-needed services and resources for women in my situation is wrong. Let them help,” said Alina Dulgheriu of the Be Here for Me campaign.
Censorship of “buffer zones” criticism in Scotland
The Scottish government has shown support for rolling out censorial “buffer zones” across Scotland. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon chaired a “summit” on the issue last month, inviting campaigners in favour of censorship zones to participate. This support for the policy comes despite the First Minister’s acknowledgement that “buffer zones” raise significant concerns in accordance with human rights law.
When the policy idea was criticised by ADF UK’s Lois McLatchie on BBC Scotland, SNP Spokesperson MP Alison Thewliss called to have the 26-year-old Scot deplatformed from the broadcaster, despite the BBC’s requirement for balanced coverage under the conditions of the Royal Charter.
“As a Scottish woman, I will not stop speaking out to defend the rights of all people to speak freely. That is why it is so disappointing to see a Scottish MP seek to silence and deplatform me simply because she disagrees with what I have to say. Ironically, she seeks to cancel me because of my views on the censorship of speech on public streets. It is my firm belief that governments must not be allowed to censor public spaces based on their own ideological viewpoints. Apparently, she disagrees. I welcome debate. But ad hominem attacks make our public discourse poorer. Democracy depends on the free and fair exchange of views,” commented McLatchie.