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'People's Thoughts Are on Trial': UK Court Rules on Charity Worker, Priest Who Prayed Silently in Abortion Zone

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A pro-life volunteer and a Catholic priest in the United Kingdom who separately went to trial for praying silently in an abortion clinic censorship zone were both acquitted of all charges Thursday in Birmingham Magistrates' Court. 

The two were represented by attorneys from the nonprofit law firm Alliance Defending Freedom UK (ADF UK). 

Isabel Vaughan-Spruce, co-director of March for Life UK, and Father Sean Gough, a priest at the Archdiocese of Birmingham, were criminally charged with violating a local Public Spaces Protection Order

slider img 2The City of Birmingham maintains buffer zones around abortion clinics; these designations render it illegal for people to engage "in any act of approval or disapproval" surrounding abortion, including through "verbal or written means, prayer or counseling."

"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. It's a great moment to celebrate the vindication of Father Sean and Isabel," Jeremiah Igunnubole, legal counsel for ADF UK said in a statement. 

"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 Fr Sean had been stood in the same spot thinking different thoughts, they likely wouldn't have been arrested," he continued. 

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

"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 said. 

As CBN News reported on Feb. 6, Crown Prosecution Service's (CPS) charges against Vaughan-Spruce were dismissed, but she had no plans of stepping away from the legal battle and stated her intention to pursue full dismissal of her charges.

Vaughan-Spruce, the director of the UK March for Life, was arrested in Birmingham, England, last December after she said she "might" be praying in her head when police demanded to know why she was quietly standing on a public street near an abortion clinic.

Vaughan-Spruce was reportedly silent before police approached her and had no signage in her hands. Her offense? Authorities received complaints from an onlooker who suspected she was praying silently in her mind in the so-called "censorship zone."

Video of her police encounter went viral and sparked an international reaction. Vaughan-Spruce can be seen in the clip interacting with police and explaining she "might" be praying in her head but isn't protesting. "You're under arrest," a cop proclaims in the viral video before detaining her.

"I'm glad I've been vindicated of any wrongdoing. But I should never have been arrested for my thoughts and treated like a criminal simply for silently praying on a public street," co-director of March for Life UK said outside of the court. 

"When it comes to censorship zones, peaceful prayer and attempts to offer help to women in crisis pregnancies are now being described as either 'criminal' or 'anti-social'. But what is profoundly anti-social are the steps now being taken to censor freedom of speech, freedom to offer help, freedom to pray and even freedom to think," Vaughan-Spruce said. 

"We must stand firm against this and ensure that these most fundamental freedoms are protected and that all our laws reflect this," she added. 

Charged for 'Intimidating Service-Users' Even Though Abortion Facility Was Closed

Similarly, Father Sean Gough was charged on Feb. 9 for praying within the same censorship zone in Birmingham. He remained silent, but made his intentions clear by holding a sign reading "praying for free speech." 

A further 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.    

Gough was charged with "intimidating service-users" of the abortion facility even though the clinic was closed.   

"I'm pleased that I've been cleared of all charges today and to have cleared my name," the priest said outside the court building. "I stand by my beliefs – unborn lives do matter. But whatever your views are on abortion, we can all agree that a democratic country cannot be in the business of prosecuting thought crimes." 

"If the government imposes censorship zones around every abortion facility in the country, as they are considering doing with the Public Order Bill currently under discussion, who knows how many more people will stand trial, even face prison, for offering help, or for praying in their mind?" Gough asked. 

In the coming weeks, the House of Commons will debate the rollout of censorship zones across the country. Clause 9 of the Public Order Bill would criminalize any form of "influencing" outside of abortion facilities, which would include prayer, with a potential prison sentence of up to two years. 

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About The Author

Steve Warren is a senior multimedia producer for CBN News. Warren has worked in the news departments of television stations and cable networks across the country. In addition, he also worked as a producer-director in television production and on-air promotion. A Civil War historian, he authored the book The Second Battle of Cabin Creek: Brilliant Victory. It was the companion book to the television documentary titled Last Raid at Cabin Creek currently streaming on Amazon Prime. He holds an M.A. in Journalism from the University of Oklahoma and a B.A. in Communication from the University of