During a silent prayer, a Catholic priest breached a censorship zone, which caused a legal battle, in addition to holding a sign with the words “praying for free speech,” near a closed abortion facility in Birmingham.
An additional charge related to parking his car, which for some time has had on it a small “unborn lives matter” bumper sticker, within the same area. The area surrounding the facility, located on Station Road, has been covered by a local Public Spaces Protection Order (PSPO), in force since November, which prohibits prayer, distributing information about pregnancy help services, and other activities considered to constitute “protest”.
For peacefully supporting free speech within the censorship zone, Father Sean Gough was charged with “intimidating service-users” of the abortion facility. This was despite the fact that all this happened while the abortion facility was closed.
“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 at the time in question, I was praying for free speech, which is under severe pressure in our country today. At all times, I believed my actions to be lawful – freedom of expression, especially when peaceful, is protected in domesticand international law. 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,” said Father Sean Gough.
When police officers initially approached the priest holding the “praying for free speech sign”, they told Father Gough that they did not think that he was breaking rules. However, the priest was later invited for interview at the police station, interrogated on his actions, and eventually criminally charged.
The Crown Prosecution Service subsequently dropped the charges against Father Gough, but made clear that they could be reinstated. Like Isabel Vaughan-Spruce, Father Gough has stated his intention to pursue a clear verdict on his charges in court, in order to clear his name.
A Censorial Trend
Amid several recent cases of individuals facing fines or criminal charges for praying near abortion facilities, Father Gough marks the first where prayer that is not related to abortion, but to free speech, has led to criminalisation.
Isabel Vaughan-Spruce was recently searched and arrested by three police officers, as captured in a viral video, after she made clear that she was not “protesting,” but “might be” praying inside her head within the Birmingham censorship zone.
Similarly, father and army veteran Adam Smith-Connor was recently fined in Bournemouth after local authorities questioned him as to the “nature of his prayer,” within a censorship zone, to which he answered, “I’m praying for my son, who is deceased”.
“The process in and of itself has become the punishment for people like Father Sean, who face onerous legal battles simply for holding peaceful views in certain public spaces, against the will of authorities. 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’. Father Sean’s years of service to women in crisis pregnancies are testimony to the good of his character and intention,” commented Jeremiah Igunnubole, legal counsel for ADF UK, the organisation supporting Father Sean Gough.
Commenting on Father Gough’s decision to pursue clarity in court, Igunnubole added:
“Father Sean is understandably seeking clarity as to the lawfulness of his actions. 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”.
“ADF UK remains committed to supporting Father Sean’s pursuit of a verdict. No one should fear prosecution for expressing peaceful beliefs, let alone on a small bumper sticker, nor through a sign that simply reads ‘praying for free speech’,” commented Igunnubole.
Speaking about his broader work inservice to women in crisis pregnancies, Father Gough explained:
“A large part of my ministry is working for ‘Rachel’s Vineyard,’ a charity that supports the healing of hundreds of women and men in the UK every year wounded by abortion. I don’t judge or condemn those who have had abortions – but volunteer my time to work for their healing.”
“It’s an issue that means a lot to me because my mom made a bold choice for life when I was a baby. I was conceived in the context of severe violence, and she found the grace and strength to fight for us both. So manypeople thought she should abort me, but by the grace of God, she didn’t, and we’re both so grateful for that today,” he continued.